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The Art of the Stamp:
A Victoria,BC Love Story

Kimerly Rorschach: Seattle Art Museum Director

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker: Frye Art Museum Director

A thousand cuts won't kill the arts, but small cuts, are extremely irritating

Organized or Disorganized Crime: Either way, steal art and you're likely to get caught.

Art for Drugs: The connections between art theft and drug addiction.

Inherent Vice: Why some artworks contain the seed of their own demise.

Maurice Spira, untitled

New phytosanitary regulations an added wrinkle to shipping art.

  Behind the Scenes


Art for Drugs

On January 17, 2008, The Oregonian reported the arrest of those responsible for the December 2007 theft of two life-size bronze sculptures from the late Jean Vollum's estate in Portland. Although of substantial value, they likely had little resale value because of their size and uniqueness. From the first, Deputy Travis Gullberg suspected the pieces had been stolen to be cut into scrap. He was right.

Bollum Sculpture

One of the two life-size bronze sculptures stolen from the late Jean Vollum's estate in Portland.

The culprits were identified as the estate's security guard and her boyfriend. The artworks' remains were recovered at the trailer where they lived. They had sold a mere $70 to $100 worth of metal bits before they were booked on “suspicion of aggravated theft” and were likely intending to “feed their drug habits.”

The lovers would have done as well if they had sold a couple of strips of aluminum siding, some copper pipes from their trailer's plumbing and a garden fork or two, rather than hunks of traceable works of art. Although similar felonies are on record (consult Google), most culprits probably don't realize how much physical work and organizational skills are involved in such ventures. Most are caught. This likely warns would-be copy-cat felons.

A few past Vancouver art thefts are worth recounting because, like the Vollum estate fiasco, the criminal acts were ill-conceived and sometimes amusing. In 1993, minutes before Monte Clark was to open a show by high realist Gideon Flitt in his Carrall Street premises, a junkie ran off with a large canvas which he subsequently attempted to sell in a Downtown Eastside bar.

There was an attempt to lift an Inuit soapstone carving from Gastown's Spirit Wrestler gallery. Janice Whitehead recalls “the piece so overtaxed the felon's strength that he had to abandon it on top of the nearest waist-high surface.” Most of the stories, however, are not about strangers, but typically involve addicts who took the trouble to become acquainted with the businesses they planned to steal from.

An $1,800 glass sculpture from the Ray Gunz series by Jeff Burnette was pilfered by a one-armed coke-head who was a familiar visitor at Moon Base on Carrall in 1998. If it had fetched market value, the proceeds could have kept the thief in cocaine (at $10 a hit and at approximately 20 fixes a day) to keep him high for a week. More likely, he netted a few dollars, for a tiny piece of crystal meth or crack cocaine which you could get back then for $6.50. Because of their longevity, relative cheapness, these drugs were supplanting cocaine and heroin.

According to Jo Darts of Crafthouse on Granville Island in Vancouver. “even if a suspected robber whom you can describe, have talked with and who was recorded on camera in your shop, unless the stolen item can be irrevocably linked to him, no charges can be laid.” Ron Kong, of Circle Craft said that an elaborate “telephone tree” that he, Darts and other shop managers on the island participate in has reduced stealing. Shop personnel convey suspicious characters' movements to each other and to security in the hope that the robber will be caught in the act.

Officer David Brierley, a community police officer, noted that the Internet, surveillance cameras and co-ordinated databases are making it ever more difficult to sell art for drugs. Since it's now possible to obtain a crumb of crystal meth for $5 or go on a several-hour-long roar on a $20 eight-ball, why bother?

My next column will cover the theft of gold artifacts from UBC's Museum of Anthropology, including priceless Bill Reid jewellery.

Ann Rosenberg is a freelance curator, critic and author.


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