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Glass art heists puzzle St. Petersburg art world

ST. PETERSBURG — Thieves have stolen five pieces of glass art from two downtown galleries over the last year, and art lovers agree on one thing: The thefts don't make sense.

The stolen artworks are worth only a few thousand dollars and aren't easy to fence at local pawnshops. They're beautiful, but so distinctive that other collectors might recognize them.

"It's just an awful lot of risk for what the reward is," said Linda Boone, owner of Habatat Galleries in Boca Raton, who also contended with glass sculpture thefts a decade ago. "There's a lot of stupid crooks out there."

But the thieves in the most recent heist at Florida Craftsmen Gallery downtown appeared to know exactly what they wanted: They bypassed the cash register, a laptop and jewelry to take a Duncan McClellan vessel and a Chuck Boux vase with a combined value of about $6,800.

The timing of the theft also was curious. Two men broke into the gallery about 6:30 a.m. — a time when downtown streets are lightly traveled but not altogether empty.

The gallery's manager says one witness saw the men inside the store and another saw them carrying the sculptures into an alley. And the heist was captured on surveillance video.

Another glass piece was stolen from Florida Craftsmen in August, but the method was different: Someone walked out of the gallery with it in broad daylight.

Thieves also have swiped glass sculptures from the Arts Center in downtown St. Petersburg twice over the last eight months.

"We just thought that they were these odd little incidents," said Jorge Vidal, exhibitions and gallery shop manager at the arts center. "Who steals glass?"

"It would look to me that they have an eye for quality pieces of glass, for sure," he added.

St. Petersburg police detectives Michael Egulf and Troy Harper say it's unusual to see art stolen from commercial establishments, though it sometimes is stolen during home burglaries.

They say they have not yet established a pattern of art thefts downtown.

Although the stolen pieces have value — $5,200 for the Duncan McClellan vessel and $1,600 for the Chuck Boux vase — they aren't as fenceable as stolen jewelry, electronics or guns.

"Who would walk into a pawnshop to buy that?" asked Florida Craftsmen executive director Maria Emilia, pointing to some of the gallery's fine sculptures.

But it also doesn't make sense that someone would steal the art to keep.

"The art collecting world is a small pond," Emilia said. "Things are known and seen and celebrated."

But whoever took these sculptures might need to hide them.

"We're looking at unique pieces … that have a very special footprint," Emilia said. "I can't imagine any local collector engaging in that kind of thing."

Emilia said insurance will only cover part of the loss, but the gallery will make up the rest of it to compensate the artists, who put their works on sale on a consignment basis.

"We would never allow something like that to damage the artist," she said.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Glass art heists puzzle St. Petersburg art world 02/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 7:47am]
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