10 of L.A.'s Most Fascinating Art Crimes
L.A. has been home to some straight-up Thomas Crown Affair shit.
Art can be beautiful, thought-provoking and extremely valuable. In a city with as much art as Los Angeles, thefts aren't uncommon. From Picasso to Charles Schulz's Peanuts, art has been at the center of enough cases that the Los Angeles Police Department has a detail dedicated to finding and retrieving the stolen items.
Much like the art itself, these crimes are often spectacular. Below, we flash back to 10 L.A. art crimes, including scams, inside jobs and brazen heists.
10. The stolen trailer filled with valuable art
In November 2015, a trailer was stolen in Chatsworth. But this wasn't an ordinary trailer. It wasn't even a trailer loaded with some band's gear. This one was storing $250,000 worth of art. In the grand scheme of L.A. art heists, that's not a big dollar amount, but the names represented in the collection— Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Keith Haring among them — made it newsworthy. About six months after the story first hit the news, an arrest was made when the trailer was found stripped in a Canoga Park backyard. L.A. Times reported then that $120,000 worth of the art was recovered.
9. Stolen art found via Facebook
News travels fast now thanks to social media, and that can be helpful for tracking down stolen art. Last summer, a $10,000 painting by Neil Nagy was stolen from San Pedro's Warschaw Gallery during an art walk. On Aug. 2, KTLA reported about the theft and that security video footage showed the suspects in an alley. The following day, The Daily Breeze reported that the painting had been found. What happened was that a post about the incident also turned up on a community Facebook page and an unidentified woman who saw that post recognized the art as something that had been tossed over her fence. The painting was returned to the gallery.
8. The burglary that took Chagall and Rivera from an elderly couple's Encino home
In 2008, thieves broke into the Encino home of an elderly couple, probably through an unlocked door, and absconded with millions of dollars' worth of 20th-century art, including pieces by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera. The couple were home but didn't hear anything; it was their housekeeper who noticed the crime after returning from the grocery store. Several years passed between the heist and its resolution, during which time the couple died and the family received the insurance payout. It wasn't until 2014 that a joint undercover effort between LAPD and the FBI led to an arrest. Someone in Europe by the name of "Darko" was trying to find buyers for the stolen paintings, which led law enforcement to a West L.A. hotel where Raul Espinosa tried to sell paintings valued at more than $10 million for $700,000. Espinosa pleaded no contest and ultimately was sentenced to four-plus years in prison. Meanwhile, authorities were able to recover nine of the 12 stolen pieces.
7. The Strange heist of two Maxfield Parrish paintings
At the time that two Maxfield Parrish oil paintings were stolen from a Melrose Avenue art gallery, the theft was a head-scratcher that was compared to fictional crime capers. More than a decade later, the 2002 heist is still baffling. The oil paintings were large — said to be 5 feet by 6 feet in size — and represented two panels of a six-panel mural commissioned by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and painted by Parrish between 1912 and 1916. The whole mural was on display at West Hollywood's Edenhurst Fine Art Gallery, which was trying to sell the work on behalf of two art investors. Then the works were stolen. The gallery was closed on the day of the crime; the thieves were believed to have entered through the roof and spent much of the day in the gallery, ultimately cutting out the two panels from their frames. What makes the crime stranger is that experts said the pieces would have been difficult to sell because they're only parts of a whole work, and recognizable parts at that. Still, this crime remains unsolved. In 2016, the heist appeared on a list of top art thefts that the FBI still needs to resolve and there continues to be information and a tip line on its website.
6. The Natural History Museum heist of 1973
If the theft of Native American artifacts from the Natural History Museum seems faded from the collective memory of Los Angeles, that might be because it didn't seem to get much ink in the first place. A ProQuest search of the Los Angeles Times' archives turned up a two-paragraph report from Nov. 5, 1973, that noted 53 items had been stolen from the museum a month earlier and 16 had been recovered in the ensuing weeks. But, LAPD's Art Theft Detail notes that most of the items are still missing. Moreover, the crime is now so old that a lot of the original reports were destroyed. Still, LAPD says that 28 years after the theft, two of the blankets were recovered via a museum exhibition in St. Louis, where they were on loan from an unnamed celebrity who'd purchased them years earlier.
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