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Help Find the Owners of More Than 100 Recovered Artworks

Stolen around Los Angeles in 1993, the paintings and antiques were recently recovered by LAPD when some were brought to an auction house

(LAPD)
smithsonian.com

In 1993, burglars in Los Angeles began nabbing paintings off walls and grabbing expensive antiques and furniture from homes. The pair of thieves was eventually caught, but it was believed the art and artifacts they took were untraceable. Now, the Los Angeles Police Department has recovered more than 100 of those pilfered valuables and has launched a website to help reunite the long-lost items with their owners as part of an initiative they’re calling Operation Demetra.

The burglars weren’t taking Dogs Playing Poker or velvet Elvises. The stolen art included several works by Pablo Picasso, a painting by Joan Miro, as well as antique firearms and signed documents from presidents William Howard Taft and Ronald Reagan, reports James Queally at the Los Angeles Times.

The pieces came to the attention of the LAPD earlier this summer when an auctioneer recognized several of the stolen items in his gallery awaiting sale. After tipping off the LAPD, officers raided four locations in Los Angeles and Orange County, where they found the loot.

A relative of Paul Tobeler, who was convicted of the burglary in 1996 and died after serving his sentence, brought the artworks to the dealer. It’s not clear if the attempted sale was an honest mistake or a way to sell off the stolen goods some 26 years later. “Did this individual know they were stolen? Did this individual know they were receiving stolen property? That’s just part of the investigation that we’re not ready to dive into just yet,” Capt. Lillian Carranza, head of the LAPD’s Commercial Crimes Division, tells Queally.

The attempted sale follows a known pattern for art theft. “Generally they let it sit for 10, 15, 20 years and that’s when they try ... it’s like an investment,” LAPD Lt. Francis Boateng tells Queally. “They think that in 20 years, the owners will be dead, and we probably could sell it, so that’s what I think happened in this case.”

CBS reports that the paintings, which were not stored properly, have suffered some damage over the years. At least one piece was valued at $60,000 at the time of the theft. Currently, the police are working with Getty Museum curators to identify the artworks and determine their worth.

Finding the owners of the works, however, may be trickier proposition. The artworks are currently shown on the Operation Demetra website. The recovered art is a mixed bag, from historical photos and portraits to the Picassos and what appear to be amateur artworks. If anyone recognizes the works, LAPD encourages them to get in touch.

Art theft is a big deal in Los Angeles since it contains so many museums, institutions and private collectors holding valuable pieces. In fact, until it disbanded last October, the city was the only one in the nation with a dedicated Art Theft Detail. Chris Nichols of Los Angeles magazine reports that LAPD is still on the hunt for items including a stolen Oscar statuette, works by Takashi Murakami, Andy Warhol, Rembrandt, David Hockney, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and more. Nicolas Cage's first-edition Batman comic is also still on the lam, although the LAPD did recover his first-edition Superman in a storage locker in 2011.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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