Aerial view of Art Miami tentsEXPAND
Aerial view of Art Miami tents
Courtesy of Art Miami

Miami Art Fair Heist Sparks Court Battle Over Stolen Painting

With Art Basel just a few months off, galleries and art collectors are making plans for a really big show. But they better be careful. Art thieves have been known to visit. And big money paintings are everywhere.

Take Art Miami, for instance. Back in 2014, when a tent belonging to the popular fair was pitched in Midtown Miami, somebody grabbed an $85,000 plate crafted by one of the greatest of 20th Century artists, Pablo Picasso. The piece, which was owned by Amsterdam-based Leslie Smith Gallery, went missing from its display space.

Scores of guards, of course, were securing the property. There were locks and chains everywhere. But the 1956, 16.5-inch-wide silver plate engraved with a smiling face and stick-finger hands, Visage aux Mains, disappeared after the place closed.

“I’ve been doing art shows all my life. Even when I was a kid, I went with my parents,” said David Smith, owner of Leslie Smith Gallery, who was then 45 years old. “I’ve never, ever had anything stolen.”

Fast forward to 2016, the year before Art Miami moved to the old Miami Herald site on Biscayne Bay. A fair booth belonging to Zurich-based Galerie von Vertes was supposed to be showing a pricey painting by the prominent modern artist Tom Wesselmann — an undisputed maestro of juxtaposing fruit and nipple imagery.

A Tom Wesselmann statue in Seattle, Washington.
A Tom Wesselmann statue in Seattle, Washington.
Photo by Brick O'Neil

But Study for Unicef Bouquet went missing as well. The gallery was hoping to sell the flower painting for $150,000 — far less than the $10-million price tag Sotheby's fetched for Wesselmann's more widely known Great American Nude No. 48.

So, who's at fault for the theft? The gallery's British insurance underwriters recently filed a lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale against Bourlet Art Logistics, a delivery contractor, claiming it left the piece unattended at Art Miami. According to the lawsuit, Bourlet's agents dropped it off three days before its scheduled delivery date in November 2016 and claimed to have left it in an unlocked closet. Moreover, Bourlet "has no receipt to show that it delivered the painting into the care, custody and control" of an authorized rep from the gallery, according to the suit.

Insurance investigators have had little success in tracking down Study for Unicef Bouquet. The artist, whose work is still coveted by modern art galleries around the world, passed away in 2004.

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