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Art Thieves Leave Many Frowns Behind

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When works by Picasso, Degas and Matisse were pilfered last year from a San Pedro warehouse, Los Angeles police quickly jumped into action.

But on Friday, nearly a week after a Red Skelton clown self-portrait was spirited away from a San Pedro art gallery, Los Angeles detectives had yet to interview the sales clerk on duty when the lithograph was lifted. Nor had the LAPD’s art theft specialist yet been called in to investigate the caper.

“I’m not even aware of it happening,” said LAPD Det. Don Hrycyk, who is assigned full-time to investigate art thefts.

The thieves who entered the Parkhurst Galleries in San Pedro last Saturday afternoon apparently knew exactly what they wanted. They weren’t after the Thomas Kinkade landscapes or the seascapes by the gallery’s owner, Violet Parkhurst. They seemed to have their eye on one thing, a colorful lithograph by Skelton, the venerable rubber-faced comedian and artist who died last month.

While the sales clerk was distracted by one couple, another pair with a baby stroller allegedly made off with the signed piece titled “Big Red,” depicting a frowning Skelton dressed in his trademark clown outfit. It was valued at $2,850 and was being sold by the gallery on behalf of a private owner.

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Austin Knight, who has worked at the gallery for more than 15 years, recalled being shocked by the fast-acting thieves, who left five other Skeltons untouched. “I turned around like this,” said Knight, opening her mouth and throwing her hands up towards her face, “and it was gone.”

Knight, 64, said she was working alone when the lithograph disappeared from the gallery, which is tucked away in Ports o’ Call, a mock fisherman’s village next to the Port of Los Angeles. The gallery is one of a handful in the nation authorized to sell Red Skelton paintings and lithographs, whose prices, some say, have nearly tripled since the entertainer died Sept. 17.

Skelton, whose acting and comedic career spanned six decades, spent his later years painting clowns and images of the well-known characters he portrayed, such as Freddie the Freeloader and Clem Kadiddlehopper. He made a small fortune from his artwork, earning as much as $80,000 for a single canvas. At his death, he had completed more than 1,000 oil paintings--all portraits of clowns.

About 55 of his paintings were turned into limited-edition canvas lithographs which he signed once they were sold. Each of the lithographs, whose prices ranged from $595 to $995 before his death, was numbered and came with a certificate verifying that it was an original. Skelton made an estimated $2.5 million a year from lithographs.

The piece stolen from the San Pedro art gallery was No. 175 out of 2,500 lithographs printed from the painting “Big Red.” It was part of a series that contained a companion lithograph called “The Cellist.” But the thieves did not get the lithograph’s original certificate, meaning that it will be very difficult to sell on the secondhand art market.

Skelton was among a number of entertainers, including Tony Curtis, Anthony Quinn, Buddy Ebsen and Tony Bennett, who in their later decades have taken up art as a hobby and business venture.

Skelton experts say his art has quickly risen in price since his death.

“The more scarce they become, the more valuable they become. He didn’t pre-sign any of the lithographs,” said Jonathan Wood, who sells Skeltons in his Newport Beach gallery called Pagliacci. In 1991, thieves made off with a Skelton oil painting valued at $45,000 from the gallery. It eventually turned up at a Gardena card club, Wood said.

While Skelton’s work was never classified as fine art, it delivered an upbeat message to many who saw it. “When you look at his clowns, you can be really miserable,” said Knight, who has four lithographs by the comedian in her personal collection. “Then you suddenly remember the things Red Skelton has said and done and you feel good inside and start to laugh.”

Over the years, Skeltons have drawn less than mammoth prices in more upscale art circles.

“They are not necessarily good investments,” said Kelly Troester, a print expert at Butterfield & Butterfield art auctions in Los Angeles. “Red Skelton tends to go for higher prices in galleries, but his resale value [in art auctions] brings a fraction of what people paid for it.”

By mid-Friday, no detectives had yet been to the Parkhurst Galleries to interview Knight about the stolen artwork, said Harbor Division Det. Tom McAvay, noting that an initial report was taken the day of the theft.

Nor had officials notified other galleries specializing in Skelton art to be on the alert for anyone attempting to sell the stolen piece. “I hadn’t heard anything about it,” said Aaron Duran, director of Addi Galleries in Las Vegas, the largest seller of Skelton lithographs.

All Knight hopes for is the swift return of the piece. “I’m just so upset that someone would steal something that was done by a dead person,” said Knight.


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