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Original Chihuly sculpture stolen from St. Petersburg gallery, police say

An empty spot is left where the stolen Chihuly work, Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles, used to sit. Video at tampabay.com/video.
An empty spot is left where the stolen Chihuly work, Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles, used to sit. Video at tampabay.com/video.
Published Feb. 9, 2016

UPDATE:

One day after a Chihuly glass sculpture was discovered missing from the artist's St. Petersburg collection, the piece turned up undamaged at a nearby arts center.

The vessel was found Tuesday morning by an employee at the Morean Arts Center. It was undamaged.

Read the full story here.

ST. PETERSBURG — A custodial worker at the Chihuly Collection came upon every art director's nightmare early Monday: an empty, broken display shelf.

The discovery of a missing glass vessel, with an estimated value of between $20,000 and $25,000, laid bare the fact that the fine art gallery on tony Beach Drive was the victim of a heist.

"I would more or less say I'm heartbroken," said Andy Schlauch, executive director of the Collection. "I was completely shocked."

The piece, identified by the St. Petersburg Police Department as Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles, measures 8 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches. It was secured by silicon to wooden tiles, which were affixed to a small shelf with epoxy, according to Schlauch. Two tiles were missing along with the glass art. The piece did not have an individual alarm.

Officials with the Collection think the vessel was taken Sunday because door alarms would have sounded had anyone tried to break in overnight. Schlauch said a security guard was on duty while the gallery was open between noon and 5 p.m. Typically, the guard would work near the ticket booth and make occasional rounds of the building.

"If there's somebody who would look suspicious, our staff is used to having to keep an extra eye on people for that sort of thing," he said.

A few hundred people passed through the gallery Sunday before about 4 p.m., Schlauch said, when crowds began to dwindle before the Super Bowl. Authorities were reviewing surveillance footage Monday afternoon. The vessel was positioned next to five other glass works, but Schlauch said that particular piece was the smallest in the group. It is part of a series of works styled after Venetian Art Deco classics.

William Warmus, former curator of modern glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, said he often speaks of Dale Chihuly, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, as the 20th century's most accomplished glass artists.

"He's obviously one of the most important figures, and the Venetians series is one of his most important series — and one of also the most difficult ones to make," Warmus said.

Each vessel contains several delicate flourishes that make it distinctive. The stolen artwork had gilded handles that Schlauch fears may have shattered when the piece was pried from the shelf.

Officials with the St. Petersburg gallery notified Chihuly of the missing piece after they learned of the theft.

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"I think Dale would be every bit as heartbroken as I am," Schlauch said. "Sometimes I've heard him say some of his drawings feel like his children."

The market for someone trying to sell the stolen artwork will shrink as more people learn of the theft, Warmus said. Chihuly's designs are unique and recognizable, and pictures of the missing vessel were already circulating early Monday afternoon.

"If it showed up somewhere, somebody would raise a red flag pretty quickly," Schlauch said.

The museum remained open Monday and admirers of Chihuly's work filtered through the space, snapping pictures and ogling blooms of colorful glass even as detectives passed nearby.

Some hadn't noticed the empty shelf or assumed the piece was taken down for cleaning.

When told of the stolen artwork, Pat Walsh, 65, from Virginia circled back through the gallery to take a look.

One of the best parts of the collection, she said, is how close guests can get to the work.

"The fact that somebody took advantage of that approachability and proximity is sad," she said.

"It's extremely upsetting and it kind of demonstrates a feeling of selfishness and greed to think they have the right to steal something from the museum and the entire public," said Judy Danielson, 67, a tourist from Maine.

Nearby, Schlauch bounded between police officers and reporters. One asked if the theft reminded him of the popular heist film Ocean's Eleven. Schlauch demurred, saying an incident like this "doesn't happen often."

He fidgeted and shared a message for the thief.

"Just bring it back," he said. "That's all I want."

Times news researcher John Martin and art critic Lennie Bennett contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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