An assistant priest at St. Nicholas of Myra Episcopal Church in Encino strolled into his boss' office Monday night and noticed a new framed drawing placed just inside the door.
For a moment, it appeared to be a donation from a parishioner or a new piece of art for the office.
But when he went to admire the drawing more closely, he realized he'd seen it before. This, he was sure, was "The Judgment," the 1655 pen and ink work by Rembrandt that had been all over the news since it was stolen two days earlier from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey.
Within hours, officials had confirmed that the drawing was indeed the missing Rembrandt, which had been the subject of a high-profile hunt. Detectives expressed relief that the artwork had been recovered but were surprised that a theft that initially appeared so well-orchestrated ended with someone sneaking into a suburban church and leaving the drawing, which is valued at more than $250,000.
Father Michael Cooper said he's not sure if he was the intended recipient of the Rembrandt and was as puzzled as detectives about how it ended up at his church.
"We are a church. It is a place of reconciliation," said Cooper, a former L.A. County sheriff's deputy who serves as a volunteer chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Cooper's office, lined with religious books and filled with imposing wood furniture, is in a bungalow just outside the main church, a 1939 Mission style structure with large brass doors on Ventura Boulevard. Cooper said someone apparently sneaked in when his assistant pastor left the bungalow for a few minutes.
"The door was unlocked and propped open," he said. "Somebody may have driven by and seen the lights."
Detectives believe the thieves panicked over the attention the case has received and decided to dump the Rembrandt.
Investigators have reviewed surveillance video from the hotel and hope to use it to compile a sketch of the suspect, but there was apparently no tape from the church showing who dropped the drawing off. Officials dusted the piece for fingerprints.
The 11-inch-by-6-inch quill work is owned by the San Francisco-based Linearis Institute and was on display for potential buyers Saturday night at the tony hotel in Marina del Rey.
According to sheriff's officials, the artwork disappeared between 10:20 p.m. and 10:35 p.m. The curator told detectives he became distracted during an extended discussion about art with a hotel guest. During this time, the curator had his back to the drawing, which was sitting on an easel. He turned around and saw it was gone.
Detectives believe that more than one person was involved in the job.
Art experts said stolen paintings that get too hot are often unceremoniously dumped.
Anthony Amore, co-author of the book "Stealing Rembrandts" and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, said it's not unusual for art thieves, even in a well-planned heist, to panic and drop the stolen work somewhere when they realize how much publicity the theft has generated.
"I wasn't surprised one bit when I saw how it was returned," he said.
Other stolen Rembrandts have landed in unusual perches, like the "Portrait of an Elderly Woman," stolen from the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati in 1973 and recovered from a cocktail lounge just outside the city, hidden under a floral quilt.
Or the so-called "Takeaway Rembrandt," the "Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn," which was stolen four times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and deposited in a London park and a railway station in Munich, among other locations, said Amore's co-author, Tom Mashberg.
Rembrandts are popular targets because of the name recognition and value, but in the majority of cases, the stolen works are recovered, experts said.
Stevan P. Layne, founder-director of the Denver-based International Foundation for Cultural Protection, a nonprofit trade association in the field of art and cultural property security, said that for someone trying to dispose of a stolen Rembrandt, "the market's kind of limited. People who target valuable artwork more often than not have a specific purpose in mind, whether for an owner or for their own collection."
He added that his institute's research shows that more than 90% of art thefts depend on help from an insider, such as an employee or former employee.
Representatives of the Linearis Institute in San Francisco and Los Angeles did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment. Ritz-Carlton representatives have declined to comment other than to say that they are cooperating with authorities.
As investigators look for the thieves, they are also trying to learn more about the drawing and attempt to independently authenticate it. Several Rembrandt experts contacted by The Times were unfamiliar with the piece.
Back at the church in Encino, Father Cooper has a theory about how the drawing ended up there.
"Maybe it was too much for this person.... After all, this painting called 'The Judgment' was left at a church," he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Mike Boehm and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.