DUNEDIN — They came, they saw, they concurred: The art was for the taking.
But they were mistaken.
Now after realizing the error of their ways, embarrassed art patrons are returning paintings to the Dunedin Fine Art Center by the piece — or the bagful.
It started five weeks ago, during the center's Contain It! event, when some attendees — along with exhibiting artists and an art center volunteer — helped themselves to a total of 54 paintings on exhibit.
They apparently believed, after reading a note posted at an installation, that St. Petersburg artist Sarah Gail Hutcherson was giving away her work, as is sometimes done at this event.
But that was never Hutcherson's intention, and she's asked for the art back.
Ten paintings were retrieved during the event or shortly afterward, said Ken Hannon, the center's associate executive director.
But the biggest yield came in Tuesday when a mother — a student at the center — and her daughter carted in 26 pieces stuffed into two large plastic bags.
Arthur Sanchez, the art center's registrar, was sitting at the front desk when they arrived.
He said the mother looked "mortified."
"She explained that there had been a misunderstanding and that she was returning 'stolen goods,' " Sanchez said.
"I assured her they weren't stolen, that we understood, and thanked her for returning them as soon as she realized the error," he said.
The pair wish to remain anonymous.
At the "Contain It!" event, 10 artists built multimedia installations inside portable storage units known as PODS. Hutcherson layered the walls of her unit with more than 200 pieces of her work, some painted on exotic woods like zebrawood and mahogany. She has said it took her two years to produce the work, and it was headed for an exhibit in Brooklyn, N.Y., this summer.
Installation artist Johnny Hunt, a Tallahassee artist who was giving away miniature houses at her exhibit, said it was the artist's words posted at the installation that created the confusion.
In part, they read:
"As pieces are taken away from the clusters, it changes how the installation looks and allows the exhibit to continually evolve. One can take a piece or twenty and create their own creative cluster, which is why Sarah Gail feels purpose is greater than profit."
The question of semantics involved the words "take" and "purpose is greater than profit."
Hutcherson could not be reached by deadline, but said in a previous interview: "It was a message for art buyers to let them know they could buy as few or as many as they wanted. This was just an exhibition; nothing was for sale. No work should have been touched."
Hannon was thrilled that 26 pieces came in Tuesday, especially since they were taken so long ago, and said he still has faith the remaining 18 pieces will be recovered.
"We hope this will embolden the others to feel that they too can come forward," he said.
The art center wants to help those who helped themselves, so they're offering free one-year memberships to all who bring the items back.
No questions asked.