A quarter-century has passed since the Los Angeles Police Department began investigating a string of break-ins at expensive homes in Hollywood and across the city’s wealthy Westside.
Dozens of artifacts — including paintings from Picasso and Spanish compatriot Joan Mirò, antique firearms and documents signed by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Howard Taft — had vanished from their walls, pedestals and cases.
Working alongside Interpol, the LAPD managed to capture two men involved in the burglary spree in 1993, but the valuables appeared to be lost for good.
But this summer, detectives received a strange phone call from a Southern California auctioneer. The man recognized a few pictures of stolen items on the department’s website. They were in his gallery.
The tip led police to execute four search warrants in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Detectives recovered more than 100 stolen paintings, documents and other antiques, and are now hoping to reunite the pilfered pieces with their rightful owners, investigators said Wednesday.
Police have yet to identify each item or estimate the total value of the haul, though they are working alongside experts and officials at the J. Paul Getty Museum to catalog the pieces, said Capt. Lillian Carranza, who heads the LAPD’s Commercial Crimes Division.
“We are in the process of identifying the specific art, artists and how much it might be worth,” she said.
Carranza declined to identify the auctioneer or auction house that tipped off the LAPD, but said the person who provided the art to the auction house was related to one of the original suspects in the case. Police believe the person inherited the stolen artwork from the suspect, who has since died.
“Did this individual know they were stolen? Did this individual know they were receiving stolen property? That’s just part of the investigation that we’re not ready to dive into just yet,” she said.
Some of the individual pieces were valued at $60,000, Carranza said. Others will need to be reappraised, said LAPD Det. Mel Veragara, because the paintings were not stored properly and could have been damaged as a result.
The original suspects did not know their victims, according to Veragara, who said police believe the burglars were simply targeting high-end homes.
Police described the two men arrested in connection with the burglaries in 1993 as “Armenian nationals.” One man, Paul Tobeler, was convicted and sentenced to several years in prison in 1996. He died some time after his release, and Carranza said police believe he left the stolen artwork to a relative as part of an inheritance.
Veragara declined to identify the other suspect, citing the ongoing investigation.
The LAPD has created a website with pictures of the stolen items, and asked anyone who believes they were victimized during the burglaries to visit the page to claim items they believe may belong to them.
LAPD Lt. Francis Boateng said it would not be out of the ordinary for a suspected art thief to stash their haul for a number of years before trying to resell it, which might account for the gap in time between the burglaries and the recent recovery of the missing items.
“Generally they let it sit for 10, 15, 20 years and that’s when they try ... it’s like an investment,” he said. “They think that in 20 years, the owners will be dead, and we probably could sell it, so that’s what I think happened in this case.”
Given their large nexus of galleries, museums and private collections, Los Angeles and New York are often considered to be popular targets for art thieves. In 2014, the LAPD and FBI worked together on an undercover operation that ended with the recovery of nine high-value paintings that had been stolen from the unlocked home of a real-estate developer in Encino in 2008.
The LAPD’s art theft investigators have also been involved in the recovery of rare pop-culture items in recent years. In 2011, detectives discovered a copy of Action Comics No. 1 — the 1938 comic book that marked the debut of Superman that has been valued as high as $3 million — inside a San Fernando Valley storage locker.
The issue had been stolen from actor Nicolas Cage’s private collection in 2001. Cage also lost his copy of Detective Comics No. 27, which marked Batman’s first appearance on the printed page, in the same heist. But the Dark Knight’s whereabouts remain unknown.