PRINT September 1982


New York Times, April 10, 1982

New York Times, April 11, 1982

Chicago Sun-Times, April 10, 1982

Chicago Sun-Times, April 11, 1982

Chicago Sun-Times, April 12, 1982

BY FRIDAY THE NEWS was out on the streets of Chicago. A truck carrying 89 items of painting and sculpture bound for Chicago had been stolen while it was parked on the night of Thursday, April 8, at Broadway near Spring Street in New York. In the galleries black humor ran high, but everyone rallied as other trucks were hired to bring out more work from New York to meet deadlines for openings the following week. By Saturday the truck was found abandoned near the West Side Highway.

Enter the art detective, Robert Volpe of the New York City Police Department—self-described renegade, subject of magazine profiles, and protagonist of a Dick Tracy series based on the theft of a Cézanne from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980. Resisting the impulse to dwell on the eponymous aspects of his name and his serendipitous vocation, I should mention that Volpe professionally embodies the triad of art historian, detective, and psychoanalyst (Giovanni Morelli, Sherlock Holmes, and Sigmund Freud) brilliantly examined in Carlo Ginsburg’s article “Spie. Radici di un paradigma indiziario” (Spies: Origins of the Paradigm of Circumstantial Evidence; Crisi della ragiona, Turin, 1979). He is also an artist. Volpe’s role is that of an intelligence agent who reads evidence drawn from a wide spectrum of sources and operates on a conjectural paradigm. Although he himself is rarely involved in the apprehension of criminals, he is in constant contact with street informants and relies upon his communication network and observation points to develop “intelligence information” and follow leads. Although the system of identifying malefactors is one of control, it would be a mistake to see him as merely a representative of the forces that keep the marketplace intact.

Because of the unusually large number of works that were stolen, the prevailing assumption in the art business was that the heist had not been perpetrated by professional art thieves. Before he opened the recovered truck Volpe conjectured that its location so near the Hudson pointed to the intention to ship the stolen works to Europe; but when he entered the truck he found broken crates and their contents in disarray. The majority of the 14 Louise Nevelsons, not even unwrapped, were still there, and a Joseph Cornell box, Bell Jar, had been smashed and destroyed beyond repair. “Obviously it was not a very cultured person,” Volpe observed. “Whoever it was was good at stealing a truck but not much else.” Volpe knew that professional criminals, like their professional counterparts in the art world, would have the knowledge and necessary skills to care for, transport, conserve, and negotiate over the works of art.

The day after the discovery of the truck, an additional 24 works were found in an abandoned apartment house on the Lower East Side. The following day, Monday, six more pieces were found in other locations—private homes and a Cuban restaurant. These were pieces that had been sold directly from the truck as well as from the apartment house. By Tuesday there had been ten separate recoveries of 75 works of art.

As in most major art stories of 1982, the media played an important role in the unfolding of the crime. It was the press, monitoring police wires, who first notified Volpe of the theft. After the discovered truck had been under surveillance on Saturday morning, Volpe informed the press of his decision to move in and open it. According to the next day’s New York Times, “. . . a crowd of reporters and camera crews were on hand when Detective Volpe, dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and aviator sun shades, stepped to the back of the truck and pushed it open at 4:00 p.m.” Volpe also used the media to serve notice upon the thieves that they had taken priceless and irreplaceable art works, alerting the criminals to take proper care of their haul. Daily TV coverage followed his conduct of the investigation in his role as researcher, psychologist, and detective.

The works enumerated in the newspapers were those by the most famous artists or those of the highest monetary value: Nevelson ($500,000), Ellsworth Kelly ($85,000), Roy Lichtenstein ($65,000), Cornell ($30,000), and Jean Dubuffet (“in the high five figures”). The driver of the truck had removed two works before the theft, a painting by Jasper Johns and another, from 1920, by Henri Matisse. (It would be tempting to think that he had picked these works through a judgment on their esthetic importance, but actually his decision was based on portability and value intensity: each painting is appraised at $250,000, and since both are small, by taking them with him the trucker could conveniently remove to safety a large part of the total worth of the consignment.) Even though they were not stolen the Johns and Matisse also made the news, since their collective value was $500,000.

After the theft the newspaper headlines and clippings resurfaced as enclosures in a solicitation letter from another art trucking service, who in their appeal to the stricken dealers noted: “A word to the wise is sufficient. There are cheaper ways to transport fine art but sometimes it costs a lot more. We have two men in the truck at all times and we never leave a truck overnight on the streets. It costs more but it’s worth it.”

At one point the press announced that all 89 works had been recovered; this was typically premature and incorrect. Forty pieces were found on the truck, thirty to forty had been sold, and nineteen items (including discrete elements of some sectional works) have not been recovered as of this writing. According to Volpe they are either lost or destroyed.

Volpe characterized the theft as “an exercise in innocence.” He described the shock and fear of the thieves (who were in their mid-20s) at discovering that Dubuffet’s Element Blue, 1967, which they had sold for a couple of hundred dollars, was evaluated at $80,000. (It was later found under a stairwell in a tenement.) Following a policy of flexible enforcement the police made no arrests of the buyers of the stolen material, with the rationale that they had bought the work in the same spirit as they might a TV or any other merchandise from the back of a van.

The value of the theft was determined by a system of cultural validation—that validation whose bank, according to Jean Baudrillard, is the museum. The works were extracted from the mechanisms of validation, from the physical command and the ideological claims of dealers, critics, collectors, and curators, but found a fresh degree of exchange and mobility, a pattern of distribution that constituted a remarkable simulacrum of the more sophisticated system of exchange often posited on connoisseurship and hype. One can only speculate on the reasons that certain pieces were stolen, sold, installed, or destroyed. Volpe suggests that both thieves and buyers chose purely for reasons of visual pleasure, taking pieces that were large and colorful. In the street, as in current art discourse,“pictures” is the preferred term for paintings; one might suppose that the thieves, like other current buyers, were more attracted to the images of the picture-makers than to more formalist abstract work. (Imagine their dismay if the incident had taken place in the ’70s, when they might have been confronted with conceptual puzzles and photographic documentation.) The large triangular painting by Kelly titled and colored Gray, 1980, was damaged and left on the truck; it is as if this canvas’ defining characteristics, its surface and fragile flatness, determined its vulnerability. (The piece was restored and was shown soon after in Chicago.) The sculptures by Nevelson, many of which had already been disassembled for transportation and were protected by bubblewrap, were probably not recognizable to the thieves as “art.” Because they were heavy and unwieldy, most were left on the truck, along with works by Nell Blaine, Christo, Jane Freilicher, Matisse, and Don Nice. Paintings by Carolyn Brady, Paul Georges, Cham Hendon, Nicola de Maria, Mimmo Paladino, and Joseph Piccillo were sold; the Piccillo and Brady pieces were recovered from the walls of the apartments of the “collectors” who had bought them. Moved to the Lower East Side apartment and found there were works by Francesco Clemente, Lois Dodd, the Reverend Howard Finster, Harold Gregor, Alfred Jensen, Lichtenstein, James Merrell, Ed Paschke, Ad Reinhardt, Ben Schonzeit, Saul Steinberg, and Jim Touchton. None of these lists are definitive but the very dispersal of these works serves as both model and critique of systems of distribution and consumption.

Still not recovered, and probably lost or destroyed, are some small Nevelson and Merrell pieces and more by the Italians—Sandro Chia, Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Mario Merz—as well as several cigar-shaped works by Jene Highstein. So defined by their material, bronze with a turquoise blue patina, the Highstein sculptures were the obvious candidates for transformation into use value. Informed sources believe that these pieces were rolled away and may have found a new life as hardware; or else rest quietly at the bottom of the Hudson. One hopes that the Italians are enjoying as warm a reception in their new homes as they find in the collections of the culturally enriched—but of course they may have been discarded. It is even possible that works were destroyed once the thieves understood how “hot” or how valuable their haul really was.

Despite their alleged cultural starvation the participants in this adventure immediately and successfully duplicated the patterns of art distribution yet moved the work without benefit of art-world ritual—openings, announcements, advertisements, critical support, investment assurances, and wealthy clients. The thieves intervened in the overdetermined cycle that moves art from studio to gallery to museum. They soon recognized the symbolic value of their haul and immediately began distribution and sales. Artwork normally handled with kid gloves went naked into a Hispanic marketplace, survived street activity and less-than-gallery-perfect handling, and found its public. The exchange value and symbolic value of the works remained intact, their function as decoration or commodity recognized by their possessors. The entire operation bears comparison to the auction as seen by Baudrillard, where the commodity becomes fetishized. Conspicuous consumption, of course, transcends class distinctions; paintings are commodities on both the Lower and Upper East Side. The illegal sale and trade of the stolen art resembles the ritualized activity of the auction with its deeply embedded rules of transmission and coding. For Baudrillard, the auction has as its “notable characteristic [the fact] that economic exchange value in the pure form of its general equivalent, money, is exchanged there for a pure sign, the painting. . . . The decisive action is one of simultaneous double reduction—that of exchange value (money) and of symbolic value (the painting as an oeuvre)—and of their transmutation into sign value (the signed appraised painting as a luxury value and rare object) by expenditure and agonistic competition.” Once stolen, the art on the van lost its market value even though the criminal activity around it supplied expenditure and truly agonistic competition. I would imagine that the works were still signs of prestige on the street although they never achieved Baudrillard’s “aristocratic parity with money that loses its exchange value and becomes sumptuary material.”1

On the street, exchange value, symbolic value, and use value remained elements of a single configuration. Operating on the principle of supply and demand, the exchange—like the auction—was based on what the market could bear, but unlike the auction it involved no ideological mystification. The theft was one that transferred art from the legal to the illegal market, where strategies and tactics might differ in style but objectives were fundamentally the same. Ignorant of or deliberately disregarding the price tags published in the newspapers or announced on TV, the thieves sold or traded the work for what their clients could afford. In Volpe’s words, “Art is what people will pay.”

Chicago dealers were quoted by the press as calling the theft a catastrophe and describing themselves as traumatized. There was insurance, to be sure, but the works were irreplaceable, the dealers lamented, adding that the total value was greater than that quoted in the press. This reaction underscores the enormous risk assumed in moving art around the country, let alone the world, and calls attention to the dependence of Chicago’s art market on the central market, New York. Questions of regionalism and even nationalism are submerged in an international marketplace that reduces everything to a commodity.

It took the police only six days to recover most of the stolen material so that it could be returned to its legitimate owners. The misappropriation was only temporary—values ultimately remained stable. This incident would have been menacing only if the criminals had been art thieves intending to steal privileged works from the culture. Because the theft of the art was accidental and since the majority of the work was recovered so quickly, the theft was relegated to the status of ordinary crime. Its unique quality lies in its unlikely conjunction of strategies—those of thieves, detectives, and dealers.

(The graffiti artists’ recent move from the subway to the gallery to the international exhibition is another conjunction between art and what started out as illegal activity. Pictures by graffiti artists are moved, by art-establishment invitation, from underground subway to exhibition and publication, a move that connotes recognition, legitimization, and commercialization.)

The Nevelson exhibition at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago opened as scheduled, on April 16, after another truck had been sent to recover the works, some of which had had to be repaired. The missing ones were replaced with others from Nevelson’s warehouse. The exhibition at Young Hoffman also opened as scheduled; in the room where the Highsteins were to have been displayed, photostats of the newspaper articles chronicling the theft and a photograph of the artist were substituted—a telling example of photography’s power to reproduce, represent, and repossess. Different examples from the Highstein edition were exhibited at Art Expo at Chicago’s Navy Pier the following week. A truncated version of the Italian exhibition opened at Marianne Deson. And so on.

Removed from its context the artwork became hot property, requiring shuffling to avoid capture. The operation took on farcical dimensions: in addition to shifting locations and values, there were incidents of shifting vehicles (with vans being traded for other vans) and of further thefts, necessitated by faulty batteries, to keep the network in operation and maintain its energy. The work was not stolen from the artists; it was already available for trade. The media did not convey the artists’ reactions to the theft. The only one whose reaction was noted in the papers was Jene Highstein, who was reportedly walking the streets looking for his bronzes.

On the lam, so to speak, free of ideologically imposed values, the fugitive artworks acquired phantom provenances. But the names of the people who sheltered them and probably appreciated and admired them will never surface in scholarly publications or catalogues raisonnés.

Judith Russi Kirshner is a curator and critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.



1. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981, p. 116.