Reward offered by L.A. bond guru adds to intrigue over art theft

Even by Hollywood standards, the audacious art heist from the home of a wealthy L.A. money man is an intriguing whodunit.

Jeffrey Gundlach, one of the world's top bond gurus, has offered a $1.7-million bounty for the safe return of a cherished collection stolen from his Santa Monica home last week. The $10-million haul included some of the biggest names in contemporary art: Piet Mondrian, Jasper Johns and Richard Diebenkorn.

On Monday, Gundlach took the unusual step of holding a news conference in downtown Los Angeles to announce one of the highest rewards on record for the return of stolen art. He set aside $1 million of the reward money for a Mondrian piece, which one art-theft expert said was the most ever offered for a single painting.

The biggest unanswered question: Was the caper the work of sophisticated art thieves or street burglars who couldn't tell a Renoir from a Rockwell? The theft has shaken the Southern California art world, as movie moguls, pop stars, actors and star lawyers wonder whether it could happen to them.

"Everybody's talking about it; the buzz is out there," said Cheryl Perkey, a Los Angeles art consultant to wealthy collectors and celebrities. "People who have valuable collections, that's always in the back of their mind, the safety of their collections."

Gundlach gave few details about the crime, which he said he discovered Sept. 14 after returning from a two-day business trip to New York. In addition to the art, the thieves made off with expensive watches, rare bottles of wine and even his red 2010 Porsche Carrera.

His seven-figure reward has only added to the frenzy. It's believed to be topped only by the $5 million that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston offered for the return of $300 million worth of art stolen in a 1990 robbery. The paintings, which include three Rembrandts, are still missing and the thieves never caught.

Santa Monica police have released few details about the Gundlach burglary but said they were working with art-theft experts from the FBI, Interpol and Los Angeles Police Department.

Southern California is home to a number of extraordinary private art collections owned by celebrities, entrepreneurs and wealthy families. Hollywood players are particularly drawn to buying art — both as a good financial investment and to flaunt their wealth, said Merry Norris, an art consultant to wealthy individuals.

"L.A. is currently one of the hottest scenes in the art world," Norris said. "People who have made zillions of dollars, sometimes you can't show those stock certificates to your friends. This way you can live with it and show it to your friends."

But it isn't just new money. Los Angeles has harbored dynamic and supremely wealthy art collectors for nearly a century — and the art and money they amassed have provided the basis for every one of its top museums.

Railroad magnate Henry Huntington created the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, which opened on his San Marino estate after his death in 1927. Oil baron J. Paul Getty bequeathed the money and art to launch the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Getty Villa ancient art museum in Malibu.

Other notable Los Angeles collectors included Hunts Foods magnate Norton Simon, oil baron Armand Hammer and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

The collection that Simon amassed beginning in the 1950s, now housed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, is widely considered the greatest art collection west of Chicago. Broad and his wife, Edythe, are building the $130-million Broad Collection museum, now under construction on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.

Among the leading L.A. collectors whose art has yet to find its way onto public walls is entertainment mogul David Geffen, who collects contemporary art. Adept at buying low and selling high, Geffen from 2004 to 2006 reportedly sold a handful of works for more than $300 million — including two Jackson Pollocks, two by Johns and one by Willem de Kooning.

Retired FBI agent Robert K. Wittman said wealthy individuals can afford to buy expensive paintings but often don't take the precautions necessary to protect them. That's why it's much more common for valuable art to be stolen from private individuals' homes than from museums and galleries, he said.

"Museums don't lose pieces very often because they have excellent security systems," said Wittman, who wrote the book "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." "When it comes to individuals, many times they don't have the sophisticated alarms and systems they need."

Wittman said the small bit of good news for Gundlach is that stolen art is recovered far more often than other valuables, in large part because it is so hard to sell. Artwork rarely can fetch big dollars without proof of its authenticity, he said.

"In my experience, they kept the stolen artwork hidden for a number of years and in the end the only people who end up buying are law enforcement or the FBI," he said. "They're excellent criminals, but they're terrible businessmen. They get away with the stuff, but they don't know where to sell it."

Gundlach originally offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to the return of the paintings.

He added $1 million for information leading to the return of a Mondrian painting called "Composition (A) En Rouge Et Blanc." He is offering $500,000 for the return of three other paintings, two by Joseph Cornell and one by Johns.

Police said Gundlach estimated the value of his collection at about $10 million. Two of the pieces sold for a combined $8.7 million in recent years. The Mondrian painting sold at auction for $5.3 million in 2002, according to Sotheby's.

Johns' "Green Target" sold for $3.4 million at Sotheby's in 2004. That painting was part of Johns' first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York and is very desirable because of that history.

Gundlach declined to say whether the paintings were insured. Art consultants said such protection is affordable and wise.

"With that level of collecting, he had to have insurance," Norris said. "He'd have been ludicrous not to."

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

mike.boehm@latimes.com

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

Times staff writers Christopher Knight and David Colker contributed to this report.

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