The Weird World of Art Heists

Stolen sculptures, paintings, and public installations make for distressing, often unsolved crimes

A display of art on a wall in an art gallery.

Photo by David J. Turner. Art Studio courtesy of Art Resources Gallery. Artwork by Douglass, Patricia Canney, Leslie Pilgrim, Tom Foty, John Horejs, Iorillo, Jessie Rasche, Antillion, Janella Fesenmaier, and Mari Marks Mondanelli 

One overcast summer morning about 10 years ago, sculptor Aldo Moroni was padding through his Northeast Minneapolis art studio when he saw something startling outside his first-floor window. A week before, somebody had stolen one of his public works: a 50-pound bronze replica of the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. The installation had flanked Sixth Avenue SE as part of a series honoring the neighborhood’s history—until a thief pried loose the bolts anchoring the toy-house–size statue to its brick column. Soon after, police put out a notice. TV news picked up the story. A few days later, Moroni drank his morning coffee, looked outside, and saw it—the solid-metal church sitting upright in the grass across from his studio, as reticent and unexplained as a ghost.

After all the publicity, Moroni’s thief couldn’t sell the bronze to a scrapyard (for $3 a pound, or about $150) without getting caught. Still, returning it risked capture. “Surrendered it, you know? Like the baby in the basket,” Moroni says. “It wasn’t thrown in a dumpster. It must’ve been like, ‘Oh my God; I’m an idiot. I stole the church and now I’m gonna go to Hell.’”

The city has since reinforced the Sixth Avenue bronzes, in ways public arts administrator Mary Altman would rather not reveal (but strong enough that a pick-up truck couldn’t uproot them). Fortunately, art theft is rare; the St. Paul and Minneapolis Police Departments don’t even file cases separately from other reports of larceny. Altman herself recalls only three works of Minneapolis public art stolen in her 16 years on the job. But the odd crime—often perceived as “victimless” and low priority for law enforcement—does happen, and mostly it goes unsolved. Invoking greater God-fearing scruples than when a laptop disappears or jewelry gets pinched, art theft has a whiff of old taboo. There’s the sense that something extra has been lost.

Celebrity capers make international news: the “Mona Lisa” lifted from the Louvre a century ago; two versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” pilfered in the past 25 years; the country’s most expensive art heist, of 13 paintings totaling $500 million, hitting a Boston museum in 1990. Minnesota’s big-times skew a little kitschier. Burglars swiped seven Norman Rockwells from a St. Louis Park gallery in the ’70s. In 2005, someone purloined an authentic pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the risibly insecure (as in: alarm deactivated, cameras off) Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. Quaint or not, these home-state thefts floated $500,000 and $1 million into thin air, respectively. And since its 2004 inception, the FBI’s small Art Crime Team has recovered around $165 million of stolen art globally—with the vast majority still at large. So much on the line means neither the Walker Art Center nor the Minneapolis Institute of Art feels comfortable discussing security. But other nationally renowned museums have been known to install cultural assets with trackers and use ultrasonic and microwave sensors to detect suspicious movements.

Pulling off small-scale heists—from galleries, studios, or fairs—is easier. Security more lax. Police reports even less urgent. And without as much money involved, motivation strays from black-market resale. Take, for example, Edina sculptor Nick Legeros’s 150-pound bronze of a girl playing with a model airplane. It vanished from Centennial Lakes Park this summer only to wind up a few days later dumped in a Richfield front lawn. Legeros chalks it up to school’s-out teenage mischief, though he can’t be sure. The statue wasn’t monitored by cameras. Most public art isn’t—for cost and technical limitations.

Nick Legeros's bronze of a girl playing with a model airplane.
Nick Legeros’s 150-pound bronze of a girl playing with a model airplane

Sculpture by Nick Legeros

The Uptown Art Fair hires police on patrol and gives zip ties to artists for securing their tents after hours. But the weekend festival, of more than 350 artists, runs outdoors in a busy urban setting. Six artists reported overnight theft in 2012, and of those, two say they feel security is a bigger issue at Uptown than other fairs nationwide (though others happen indoors). Fair director Maude Lovell points out that the organization encourages artists to lock up their pieces or remove them at night. But that’s a lot of extra effort after a day spent peddling deeply personal, sometimes unwieldy wares.

Perhaps most frustrating is that small-time heists deal disproportionate harm. They target people who can rarely afford to insure their works (or, hell, even purchase them themselves). Meanwhile, a thief’s best bet is to sell the stolen piece to an unwitting acquaintance for pennies on the dollar.

A year ago, Minneapolis painter Nick Harper had three portraits nicked from a restaurant where they were displayed—and even with a strong lead, he never got them back. The night they went missing, the restaurant’s security camera caught a fired employee breaking in to steal a cash register. (The paintings hung out of view.) The ex-employee implicated accomplices in the portraits’ disappearance, but search warrants failed to turn anything up. The stolen three seemed hand picked; none had hung close together. From this, Harper surmises they might have been the register thief’s favorites—their theft a sleight-handed compliment. “Hopefully she was staring at them every day at work,” he says, “and they tapped into her psyche, and she had to have them.”

Despite the risks, one motive we never question is why artists continue to create. A few years back, someone filched Minneapolis sculptor Kyle Fokken’s publicly showcased, 150-pound steel ship. It was found in a field far off its pedestal in downtown Eau Claire, WI. To keep thieves from taking art, Fokken proposes making more—to fill sculpture walks such as the ones already in Mankato, Hopkins, and Bemidji. “When you have more people out, looking at art, it makes the space more livable,” he says. It’s the broken windows theory: The more livable a place looks, the more livable it becomes. Fokken repaired the ship. He returned it to its pedestal—scrappers, delinquents, troubled admirers be damned.