Art heists are great fodder for movies and books. The stakes are usually pretty high, involving unique, priceless works of art. Daring do is often required to pull them off. And it provides a good opportunity for suave characters to behave suavely.
This isn’t one of those stories.
In February 1965, Salvador Dalí painted a version of Christ on the cross – in an hour and a quarter – and donated to Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex. Dalí was supposed to meet with some inmate artists, but wasn’t feeling well, so he sent the painting instead. It was hung in the cafeteria, where it proceeded to collect stains from various jailhouse food fights. In 1981, somebody realized what it was (and had it appraised for $250,000) and took it down.
After a short tour around the country and some time in storage, the painting was hung up again at Rikers – but not where the inmates could actually see it. Instead, it was put up in a lobby where jail employees went in and out. In 2003, a group of those employees (four guards) decided to steal it.
The plan was to create a couple of distractions and allow the leader of the scheme to take the Dalí while replacing it with a fake. It didn’t go well:
It was noticeably smaller than the original, an instant tip-off, but the reproduction was also one that, based on descriptions, not even a child would have wanted to claim. Plus, the reproduction of the cafeteria stains were an entirely different color. It was bad.
Then, of course, there was the painting’s presentation. Yes, the glass case had been locked back up with the copy safely inside. But where the original had been displayed in its gold frame, the fake was simply stapled to the back of the box, sans frame.
The whole plan was amateurish at best, but when you factor in the location—a prison teeming with law enforcement officials who spent their days gazing at that exact painting (there were two guard booths in direct view of the Dalí)—it was stupidity at its finest.
The very next day, several guards reported that there was something wrong with the Dalí.
They all got caught, of course, although the ringleader managed to get a not guilty verdict at trial (the others were convicted). As for the Dalí itself? One of the thieves says that the ringleader got nervous and destroyed it.
On second thought, maybe there is a great story here, in the tradition of a Coen Brothers “heist gone wrong” kind of thing. I’d watch it. I’ll even suggest a theme song: