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.
5. The scheme to steal pieces from UCLA's art collection
In the late 1970s, there was an Arthur Wesley Dow painting, Frost Flowers, Ipswich 1889, inside UCLA's counseling department. The thing is, no one knew what the painting was. One staffer took the painting home and spent a decade researching it, ultimately learning of its identity and history. The staffer returned the painting and told his supervisor about it. Then the supervisor stole it. LAPD's Art Theft Detail highlights this unusual crime on its website, and the story is convoluted. The supervisor, Jane Crawford, found accomplices by lying to them and saying that the painting had been in her family and she wanted to sell it. They sold the piece to a gallery, who in turn sold it to a collector. But Crawford wanted more art, and when she used the same lies to attempt to steal and sell more paintings, the accomplices smelled something fishy. They didn't say anything, though, until Crawford accused them of stealing from her. In 1999, Crawford was tried for her misdeeds, at which point her attorney argued that what she did wasn't really all that bad since UCLA couldn't prove that it owned the painting and, besides, people were using it as a dartboard in the break room. The argument didn't fly, and Crawford was sentenced to 10 months behind bars, plus probation, community service and restitution.
4. The case of the missing Peanuts art
It took a while for the employees at Charles Schulz's animation studio to notice that Peanuts animation cels had been stolen. The culprit was a longtime handyman who had cautiously removed the works from the center of the boxes in which they'd been stored. Employees found 240 cels missing during an inventory, but it turned out that the culprit took much more than that. LAPD cites this as an example of internet searches helping to solve crimes. They started to recover the cels through an online sale and were able to trace those back to a dealer in the San Fernando Valley, which led them to the culprit. In all, more than 7,600 pieces of Peanuts animation art were stolen, worth a totel of $1.5 million.
3. The plan to retrieve Peruzzi Madonna
In 1970, a Hollywood man went out to dinner and returned home to find that his house had been robbed of a painting known as the Peruzzi Madonna. The painting of the Madonna and child was quite valuable; some believed it was the work of Raphael, while others argued that it was work from the same period. Either way, it was worth a lot and two years passed before Los Angeles detectives were able to retrieve it. The sting operation was elaborate and detailed in a Los Angeles Times story from 1973. Working on a tip from an employee at a financial firm, who caught wind of the painting through a job applicant, the detectives went undercover. One played a Russian art dealer interested in the work, the other his interpreter. In the end, it worked. The suspects were apprehended and the painting was taken as evidence.
2. A stolen Rodin and the quest to retrieve it
Rodins have been stolen a lot, but there's one local instance that almost has a happy ending. Back in the early 1990s, a Beverly Hills couple returned from vacation to find that their home had been burglarized and $1 million worth of possessions were stolen. Among them were three works by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Six months after the crime, police found the couple's housekeeper, who had apparently sold a set of keys to the thieves, and later were able to recover a few items. It took just about 20 years, though, to find one Rodin, a bronze limited-edition cast of “Young Girl With Serpent.” That happened almost by chance, when a French expert was at Christie's in London and recognized the statue from a database of stolen art. Christie's halted the auction and alerted authorities, but it took another few years to successfully get the statue back from the then-owner, the son of a deceased West Hollywood gallerist. Ultimately, the statue went to the insurance company, who had long since paid out the original owner, and the sculpture went back on the auction block.
1. The Picasso and Monet “stolen” from a Brentwood home
Even when Brentwood ophthalmologist Steven G. Cooperman reported that his Picasso (Nude Before a Mirror, 1932) and Monet (Customs Officer Cabin at Pourville, 1882) were stolen while he was on vacation in New Jersey, the story was suspicious. LAPD had noticed that the alarm wasn't triggered and nothing inside the house was awry. It was just those two paintings that were missing — two paintings that had recently been insured for $12.5 million. Plus, there was something strange about Dr. Cooperman, or rather, the former doctor Cooperman. There was debate over whether his license had been revoked or he'd willingly surrendered it but, needless to say, he was in trouble with the medical board. On top of that, he was being sued for insurance fraud. That was in 1992, but it wasn't until 1996 when all the pieces fell together somewhere outside of Cleveland. It was a domestic violence call that tipped off police to the stolen art. In June 1997, the paintings were found unscathed inside a storage locker in suburban Cleveland. During the trial, all was revealed. One attorney, James P. Tierney, had plotted the fake heist with Cooperman to get the insurance money. He turned on Cooperman and admitted to the plot. Another attorney, James J. Little, had moved to Ohio and hid the paintings there. Cooperman was convicted on 18 counts and ultimately sent to federal prison for 37 months.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.