Art thieves target string of Austin galleries

AUSTIN, TEXAS — AUSTIN, Texas - Who's stealing the art?

That question has gripped many here in recent days after a string of thefts at galleries, Persian-rug dealers and high-end clothing stores culminated in the theft July 27 of two Picasso prints from Austin's most exclusive gallery, the Russell Collection.


In each case, the thieves' method has been primitive: smashing glass windows and doors with a large rock, then fleeing with the stolen goods.

Detectives at the Austin Police Department have estimated losses from each of the eight incidents at from $10,000 to more than $120,000.


The two Picasso linocut prints, valued at more than $60,000 each, were of the painter's second wife, Jacqueline Roque, and were in an obscure room in the back of the Russell Collection, a gallery tucked away in a shopping mall north of downtown.

"It must have been someone who knew the art market quite well," said Lisa Russell, who opened the gallery last year. "They walked right past the Pissarros, the Chagall, the Rembrandt. They knew exactly what they wanted."

Although the burglaries have many gallery owners on edge, they have also shed light on an increasingly sophisticated art scene. Long overshadowed in Texas by art markets in Dallas and Houston and by Austin's vibrant music scene, the city's galleries and museums have recently grown more prominent.

More than 30 galleries now compete for the attention of collectors, offering works that include paintings of cowboys on the range, nude photography and contemporary Cuban art. Many galleries have done well despite the local economy's relative sluggishness after the decline in technology spending that fueled much of Austin's growth in the late 1990s.

"We're going through a strong period of cultural maturation," said Jonathan Bober, curator of prints, drawings and European paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas here. "As a participant, it's exciting to witness. But as someone in the museum business, I'm of course worried about the predatory behavior that accompanies the process."

The taste of the cultural thieves who have focused on Austin varies, with the Picassos at one end of the scale. At Artworks, a large gallery and framing studio, thieves made away with two large bronze sculptures by artists from California and Utah, respectively, as well as a collection of gold jewelry from India.

Insurance policies covered losses from the theft of the sculptures but not all of those from the jewelry, resulting in a small loss for the gallery, said Rene Hurtado, one of the owners of Artworks. The thieves, who hurled a rock through the gallery's front window, ignored money in the cash register, Hurtado said.

"What kind of thief doesn't care about the cash?" he said. "Someone who cares more about art, I guess. It's pretty bold."


It remains to be seen whether the thieves are working for themselves or are on assignment for a collector. Investigators from the Austin Police Department said they believed that as many as eight recent burglaries were related, including two incidents at stores selling Persian rugs.

Detective Jarrett Crippen said the burglaries were "extremely rare for Austin." He said the police were investigating some suspects, but conceded that they were not on the brink of solving the case.

The thieves' methods are apparently common. Detective Don Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department's art theft detail, one of the only units of its kind in the nation, said the incidents resembled a string of gallery thefts in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in 1999.

"It's as easy as it gets," Hrycyk said, adding that it could be difficult to find the stolen objects because even the Picassos are not valued at more than $100,000, usually the threshold for attracting attention. "It's still a chunk of money these folks could get, though," he said.

At Russell's stylish gallery - the walls lined with works by Renoir, Elizabeth Twining, Matisse, the Pissarro family and even a couple of Picassos the thieves did not take - the mood was apprehensive Thursday as she talked with television news crews and police investigators. An empty space on the wall marked the absence of the prints, each from a 1962 series called La Chapeau a Fleurs.

"They weren't the most significant or even the most expensive works I have," Russell said. "Maybe someone decided they just had to have a Picasso."