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St. Pete Chihuly Collection heist still a mystery two years later

Andy Schlauch, executive director of the Chihuly Collection, looks over a stolen glass sculpture on the morning it was returned to the gallery  Feb. 9, 2016. [Times (2016)]
Andy Schlauch, executive director of the Chihuly Collection, looks over a stolen glass sculpture on the morning it was returned to the gallery Feb. 9, 2016. [Times (2016)]
Published Jul. 3, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's great art heist was over in a day.

It began terribly, even for a Monday, when a custodial worker at the Chihuly Collection noticed an empty shelf where a famed glass vessel should have stood.

The gallery director panicked, saying he was heartbroken. Detectives swirled around the darkened rooms, peering between sculptures for clues.

STOLEN: Original Chihuly sculpture taken from St. Petersburg gallery

The next morning, a crude box showed up wrapped in tape outside the arts center that owns the Collection. The $20,000 sculpture was stuffed inside, unharmed. The thief had not scratched the glass, whirling with pink and purple eddies, or shattered the wavy golden handles.

Nearly 900 days have passed since then, Feb. 9, 2016.

Police have not made an arrest. The thief is still out there, but no one seems to care much now anyway.

• • •

A guest services manager found it, the vaguely foreboding and battered box that looked like a bomb. She ripped it open, tilted the glass, felt drops of rubbing alcohol hit her fingers.

FOUND: Morean Arts employee finds box with glass art stolen in Chihuly Collection heist

Police said someone had wiped down the piece — Dale Chihuly's Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles — but the investigators took samples for DNA testing. Collection Director Andy Schlauch asked that they not swab the 8-inch surface for fingerprints, wary of scratches.

The DNA tests yielded nothing, said police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez. The detectives who were assigned to the case have since been reassigned.

Back then, she said, the department devoted extra people to the theft, determined to find out who was responsible.

"(We) went the extra mile on this one," she said.

A police major credited the attention for scaring the thief into returning the vessel. Detectives wouldn't rule out that a gallery visitor could have done it, but they thought it was probably someone more familiar with the Collection.

If new evidence crops up, Fernandez said, police will dedicate investigators to the Chihuly case again.

"Right now it's only been a couple years," she said. "It's probably going to remain open for a while."

• • •

The Chihuly Collection, owned by the Morean Arts Center, has since moved from Beach Drive to a new building on Central Avenue.

Schlauch is still the director, and the piece from the Venetian series is still part of the exhibit. When he gives tours through the gallery, that sculpture stands out.

"Every time I look at that piece it brings me back to what happened," Schlauch said.

He had worried that the vessel would be damaged from where the thief pried off two wooden tiles. But Schlauch was overjoyed to find no damage to the bottom of the sculpture.

"It's an easy thing to scratch a work of art when it's glass," he said.

The Chihuly updated its security, he said, and has better surveillance now with improved camera coverage of the gallery.

Many visitors don't know the story, Schlauch said, and guides rarely field questions about the stolen art. The director said he's never cared much about vengeance, and an arrest would offer no further closure.

"I don't know that it would change anything," Schlauch said. "Ultimately I'm just glad that it got back to us unharmed. … That's the resolution I like and needed."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @Zack Sampson