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

Andy Schlauch, Exec. Director of the Chihuly Collection inspects a piece of recovered sculptured glass art entitled, "Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles", on Tuesday, February 9, 2016 [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Feb. 10, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Jeannette St. Amour rounded the corner from the parking lot onto the Central Avenue sidewalk and immediately spotted the box.

Small, a little banged up, covered in tape — it seemed more sinister than surprising. It did not look like a delivery box. Someone had tucked it into the entryway of the Morean Arts Center, which St. Amour, a 21-year-old guest services manager, was in charge of opening just before 9 a.m. Tuesday.

She had heard about the heist. The thought tickled the back of her mind: Could it be the glass piece reported stolen from the Chihuly Collection a day before? Definitely not.

"I was kind of afraid it was a bomb at first," St. Amour said.

She sliced the package with a box cutter.

Bubble wrap. And inside a small glass vessel, ornate and instantly recognizable. St. Amour called her boss. She described the pink and purple swirls, the curved golden handles. It was the genuine article, a piece from Dale Chihuly's renowned Venetians series, in what appeared to be good condition.

"It's not every Tuesday morning you get to open a $25,000 Chihuly piece," she said.

FAMOUS HEISTS: Art thieves strike everywhere

The sculpture, Cobalt and Lavender Piccolo Venetian with Gilded Handles, measures about 8 inches tall. St. Petersburg Police investigators still do not know who took it.

It appeared that someone had pried the vessel off a small shelf, taking two wooden tiles with it, said Andy Schlauch, the Collection's executive director. It was not secured with an individual alarm at the gallery on Beach Drive.

Schlauch said he was near tears when he saw the piece again Tuesday morning. There were some scratches where the silicon connected the bottom of the vase to the tile, but it did not appear like the glass was damaged.

"I didn't believe it," Schlauch said.

Detectives seized the box and the bubble wrap. Major Paul McWade said investigators would review surveillance footage and look for traces of DNA. They did not check the vessel for fingerprints because Schlauch said there was too great a risk of scratching the glass.

McWade said it looked like someone had rubbed the vessel down with alcohol to remove evidence. When St. Amour opened the package and tipped the sculpture, she said, some rubbing alcohol poured out onto her hand.

Media and police attention Monday likely helped bring the piece back, McWade said.

"I think we scared somebody," he said.

While investigators are not ruling out that a gallery visitor could have taken the sculpture, McWade said police are "leaning toward somebody that knows" the Morean Arts Center, which owns the Chihuly Collection, and has access to the artwork.

Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent who is now president of an art security and collection management company, said about 90 percent of museum thefts are perpetrated by insiders — employees, volunteers or researchers with access to unique materials. Based on the way the piece was returned — bundled in a box, less than 24 hours after it was reported missing — Wittman said he doubts the heist was the work of a practiced criminal.

More likely, according to Wittman, it was a crime of opportunity.

"What I've seen — it's always a financial crime," he said. "It's a way of making money."

Schlauch hurried over to the Morean at 719 Central Ave. early Tuesday as soon as he heard of St. Amour's discovery. He spoke with detectives and reporters for a second consecutive day, his fear replaced by jubilation. With a steady hand, he ensconced the vessel in bubble wrap.

"It's going into my office under lock and key," he said.

Glass is a surprisingly resilient material unless it is completely shattered, said Mark Zirpel, the Dale Chihuly Endowed Chair in Glass at the University of Washington. Any rubbing alcohol or other substance applied by the thief would not have damaged it.

Schlauch said as soon as he can fix the shelf the artwork rested on, it will be returned to the gallery. The Collection is working with police to review its security protocols, he said.

St. Amour spent Tuesday morning riding a high from her close encounter with a work by Chihuly, widely considered one of the greatest glass artists of the 20th century. A couple of hours after she found the piece, she returned to answering phone calls and helping guests at the Morean.

"I'm here until 5," she said.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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