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Galleries Hit by Art Thefts

Know this guy? He's suspected of stealing a sculpture from Village Gallery, one of three galleries hit by a rash of thefts..

Art thieves targeting neighboring Laguna Beach galleries in the 500 block of Coast Highway have stolen $8,000 worth of sculptures in three separate recent incidents.

The most recent heists occurred last Friday, Nov. 4, at Wyland Gallery and Townley Gallery, where men secreted artwork under rain gear and jackets, respectively, Laguna Beach police and gallery officials said.

Two weeks earlier, an unaccompanied thief

The torso sculpture stolen last month at Village Gallery.

who appeared to take and send cell phone images of a sculpture inside Village Gallery, walked out with a $3,300 work by Sherri McQuen known as “Esprit” when a sales representative was distracted, said gallery owner Marty Brown, who provided police with video surveillance photos. He thought police would alert other gallerists about the 7:20 p.m. incident on Oct. 22.

The thefts do not appear to be related because the suspect descriptions and video differ, said Lt. Jason Kravetz.

“We told police they happen in spurts,” said Brown, who described his showcase, open 21 years in Laguna, as one of the few that stays open weeknights to cater to post-dinner browsers. “People are on pins and needles; they feel violated,” he said of his staff.

Brown’s comments proved eerily prescient.

 

From left, April Gordon, Bill Bradfield and Shane Townley of Townley Gallery, surround an empty pedestal after an art theft last Friday. Other galleries have also been hit. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Last Friday, Nov. 4, about 45 minutes before Townley Gallery’s 8 p.m. closing, an unaccompanied man who surveillance video showed had stopped by 20 minutes earlier, walked with certainty towards a pedestal and plucked a glass ram’s head from a pedestal under his coat. “He must have been watching through the window,” said gallerist-artist Shane Townley, whose employee had briefly stepped into a back room.

A suspected art thief beside the sculpture pedestal in Townley Gallery.

The theft of work by Palm Desert glass sculptor Patrick Blythe wasn’t discovered until the next day. After a similar theft 18 months ago, Townley installed a surveillance system “We’ve been watching eBay and Craig’s List,” he said, hoping to spot someone trying to sell the purloined art, but has had no success. One of his employees distributed a flyer  to neighboring businesses with a photo of the suspected thief, Townley said.

The ram’s head sculpture stolen from Townley Gallery.

About 10 a.m. last Friday, three men wearing oversized raingear entered Wyland Studio Gallery. As one of the three talked to a consultant, the other pair moved into a corner, outside sightlines of a surveillance camera, said gallery director Daemon Clark. When they left, a $2,783 11-inch bronze Marlin sculpture had disappeared, he said. “It seemed obviously planned,” he said.

The gallery is now exploring higher security measures, such as putting alarms on sculpture, said Clark, who hadn’t considered informing other galleries of the theft. “We’re just slammed,” he said.

Previously thieves circulated in galleries in summer when crowds of visitors make supervision of inventory more difficult, police Sgt. John Falk said.

“These are desperate times which bring desperate people,” said Rebecca Barber, president of First Thursday’s Artwalk, who recently closed the retail gallery she ran with her husband, glassblower John Barber.

She recommends gallerists install video cameras and herd patrons together. “Keep an eye out and be mindful of the people coming into the gallery,” she said. “Backpacks are left at the front desk, please. Watch for women with large purses, people with strollers, people with raincoats. Sounds bizarre but an easy way to hide items,” she said.

Two years ago during another spate of art thefts, police briefed Artwalk gallery owners on how to avoid becoming a victim. They dispensed advice on identity-based credit card fraud and how to secure their premises.

Brown figures he has at least one solution. “I’m going lean on sculpture,” he said of his inventory.  Wall art is more conspicuous and has proved less of a target,” he said.

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