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A Case of Whydunit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like critics trying out adjectives to describe a perplexing canvas, investigators and art experts are looking at the theft this week of two Maxfield Parrish paintings from a West Hollywood gallery and straining to understand. Most find the thief’s work “sophisticated.” But they also label the $4-million disappearance “disturbing,” “puzzling” and “weird.”

Parrish, whose works of vibrant color and billowing clouds have fetched auction prices as high as $4.25 million, completed the two canvases in 1914 as part of a six-canvas indoor mural for the New York mansion of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

All six were on display at the Edenhurst Gallery on Melrose Avenue, offered at $2 million each, and one was visible in the front window. But only two were taken--cut from their custom frames sometime between Sunday morning and Monday morning.

The break-in is mystifying, authorities say, not only because the odds of successfully reselling such widely recognized works are slim, but also because the two canvases are part of a larger series that many collectors would want together or not at all.

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“I would term it as disturbing,” said Sheriff’s Det. Scott Petz, who is investigating.

“It’s pretty sophisticated. They had pretty clear intent on why they entered and what they were going for.”

The stolen canvases measured roughly 64 inches by 74 inches each, he said. Apart from the four Parrish canvases left behind, Petz said, the gallery space held dozens of other works, some valued at tens of thousands of dollars. No other artworks were taken or cut.

Though Parrish worked on the mural series during 1912-16, both missing works were painted in 1914. The canvases, which mimicked window views of human figures and massive urns in the foreground and Colorado mountains in the background, were intended for specific positions in a specific room. The missing canvases, known as 3A and 3B, were both for the west wall of the reception room.

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The thief or thieves “forced entry through the ceiling,” Petz said, and probably left the same way. Petz said “there has been physical evidence collected from the scene” but declined to offer details.

The next step, said Petz, is “to hit the databases real hard,” including Interpol, the FBI and private agencies that track art. He noted the odds of solving cases like this are usually relatively good, but the solutions come gradually, not immediately.

In imagining the thief’s next step, “there’s so many different scenarios that you can consider,” he said.

“Sometimes people within the art community get fixated,” Petz said. “Sometimes people steal out of their sheer passion, their desire to possess.”

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Meanwhile, the gallery owners aren’t talking but, “I feel violated,” said J.P. Bryan, the Texas oilman who owns the works with a Colorado-based partner and sent them to the Edenhurst Gallery on consignment a year ago.

The Houston-based Bryan, who has amassed one of the largest privately held collections of Western art and artifacts in the U.S., said he and the partner bought the six-canvas Parrish mural 2 1/2 years ago in a private transaction with the Whitney family. Bryan said he required the West Hollywood gallery to take out $12 million in insurance and send along copies of the paperwork, which he said the gallery did.

“We moved [the canvases] to California in June [2001], and a lot of people were extremely enamored of the paintings.” After Sept. 11, the market cooled, Bryan said, and he had begun to consider breaking up the set to hasten sales. He heard about the theft when a message from detectives reached him in Houston, he said.

“Someone didn’t do this without studying those panels very carefully. The two go together. They’re almost a pair,” he said.

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But why take only two?

“I really find that puzzling,” said Bryan. “I guess we all have a little detective in us. I’ve got to believe that somebody saw these two and was enamored of them, and put word out that they’d be willing to pay a price” to have them stolen.

Historically, said Don Hrycyk, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who has specialized in investigating art thefts for the past nine years, “a lot of these thieves, they think fine art is the thing to steal. And yet when you get into the millions, it becomes very difficult to sell stolen art. Because the art world is very small, and they communicate with each other, and the key word in the art world is ‘provenance’: They want to know who authenticated the piece, who was the prior owner and where it has been exhibited before. That’s to protect themselves and to judge the value of the piece. If you can’t answer those questions because you have cut it out of someone’s frame, then you can’t sell it. It’s not something that I would do if I was a thief. It’s a real whodunit at this point.”

Hrycyk said the last time he saw a local case involving the theft of such valuable art was in 1992, when oils by Monet and Picasso valued at $17.5 million were reported missing from an ophthalmologist’s home in Brentwood. That case turned out to be an attempt at insurance fraud by the paintings’ owner, Steven G. Cooperman, who was convicted of conspiracy and other charges in 1999 and last July was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison. The artworks were recovered from a storage locker in Cleveland.

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But an equally intriguing precedent for investigators in the current case may be the 1996 theft of a Jean Dubuffet gouache-on-paper work valued at $100,000 from a Hollywood gallery. Like the current case, Hrycyk said, that theft involved a forced entry through the ceiling of a gallery, with lines cut to disable alarms; it remains unsolved, the art still missing.

Alma Gilbert, curator of the Cornish Colony Museum in New Hampshire, and a longtime Parrish dealer, called the whole scenario “very weird.” Of the works’ $2-million-per-canvas estimated value, “that’s Los Angeles prices. That’s all I can say,” she said.

But she also vouches for the significance of the works involved. These mural canvases, she said, “were the turning point, not only for Maxfield Parrish’s life, but for the way that reproductions were made from then on.”

Parrish lived from 1870 to 1966. Until he landed the commission from Whitney, Gilbert said, Parrish made much of his living by painting works for reproduction, limiting his palette to accommodate the four-color separation process. Because Whitney was interested only in the original canvases, the artist was free to “go nuts with all the colors he wanted to use,” said Gilbert. “Parrish was able to indulge in all the wonderful tonalities that he became so famous for.” And that in turn pushed the artist’s publishers to adopt more sophisticated printing practices.

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Gilbert can also vouch for the criminal attachment that some people have for Parrish. In her 22 years of running galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gilbert said, she had two Parrish paintings stolen--including one in 1984 that was stolen, recovered, then stolen again a week later by somebody else. The two paintings, Gilbert said, have never been recovered.

Meanwhile, investigators are digging deeper into the physical evidence and the art market. The case “is certainly wide open at this point,” said Petz.

“Sooner or later,” said Hrycyk, the stolen works will reappear on the market. “At some point, it’s going to get into legitimate hands, and at that point, somebody will recognize it as stolen.”

Gilbert isn’t so sure.

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“Maybe they’ve been recovering paintings,” she said. “But they’re not recovering Parrishes. In the 30 years I have handled Parrish, I have seen him engender a great deal of passion.”


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