Da Vinci, van Gogh and now Chihuly: Art thieves strike everywhere

Chihuly Collection executive director cradles the glass work that had been stolen from the St. Petersburg gallery. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Chihuly Collection executive director cradles the glass work that had been stolen from the St. Petersburg gallery. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Feb. 9, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — It was just gone, the delicate glass masterpiece likely slipped inside an overcoat or dropped into a handbag.

Dale Chihuly's Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles was discovered missing Monday from his collection on Beach Drive. The work, just 8 inches tall, is valued at more than $20,000.

And with just as little fanfare, a day later it reappeared. An employee at the Morean Arts Center found the vessel in a box in front of the building at 719 Central Ave. on Tuesday morning. It did not appear damaged.

Perhaps a routine crime — thing taken, thing returned — except for the infectious intrigue surrounding any theft of precious art. We all root for its recovery of course, but we savor the mystery — the how, and most of all, the why.

History is filled with such heists, from the internationally notorious to the locally quaint:

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was swiped from the Louvre by a museum worker who walked out the door with the $100 million painting under his smock. The thief — who believed Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece should be at an Italian museum — was apprehended two years later, and the painting, obviously, returned.

In 2004, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen from an Oslo museum by two armed men in black ski masks. After two years of searching, authorities found the painting but wouldn't say where or how. Three men were convicted in May of 2006 on charges related to the robbery.

Vincent van Gogh's sunflowers still life was nabbed from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1991 by two thieves who appeared in the middle of the night, whipping out pistols and forcing guards to turn off infrared sensors.

But not two hours after that painting and 19 others had gone missing, police found the canvases abandoned in a getaway car at a nearby train station.

As impressive as the status of artwork itself is the elaborate planning these sticky-fingered masterminds put into the heists. Like in 2002, when two thieves in Paraguay dug a tunnel into the National Fine Arts Museum and stole dozens of paintings. Police said the tunnel, about 80 feet long, took two months to dig.

Thieves who stole about 13 works of art — worth a whopping $500 million — from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 were masters of disguise. The two posed as police officers, and their act worked well enough to fool the night watchman. After they tied him up, they strolled out with the masterpieces, having pulled off one of the world's most infamous art burglaries.

The thieves have never been caught. The paintings, which included works by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Rembrandt van Rijn, still not recovered.

Tampa Bay's own art scene has been targeted before too.

In 2009, two St. Petersburg art galleries were the victims of theft.

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The pieces swiped from the Florida Craftsmen Gallery were worth just a few thousand dollars, and the schemes weren't very sophisticated, but their timing was curious: First, two men broke in to the Florida Craftsmen gallery at 6:30 a.m. — when the downtown streets are lightly traveled. They carried the sculptures out into the alley.

Another time, someone simply walked out with one in broad daylight

Thieves also swiped glass sculptures from the Arts Center twice in eight months that same year.

In 2008, there were multiple art thefts in Tampa.

Two surrealist paintings in the Channel District slipped away on a January night. Both were by Florida artist Darwin Leon, and worth about $13,000.

A month later, someone stole a 30-year-old photograph out of the frame from the ladies room at Bella's Italian cafe in SoHo.

And shortly after, the bronze bust of Adela Gonzmart disappeared from her family's Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City for a second time. This crime though, had a happy, but mysterious, ending. The bust turned up a month later in the hands of children playing in the street.