Art Basel

Picasso artwork stolen from Art Miami fair

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

Miami police officers inspect the site from which a silver Pablo Picasso plate went missing. The plate, one of a series of 20 and valued at about $85,000, went missing from the Leslie Smith Gallery housed within the Art Miami fair in Midtown.
Miami police officers inspect the site from which a silver Pablo Picasso plate went missing. The plate, one of a series of 20 and valued at about $85,000, went missing from the Leslie Smith Gallery housed within the Art Miami fair in Midtown.

What has been dubbed Art Week, the annual fest that surrounds Art Basel Miami Beach, has attracted throngs of collectors, enthusiasts and gawkers to South Florida. And, as it turns out, at least one thief.

An unknown burglar — or burglars — swiped a silver plate crafted by Spanish master Pablo Picasso sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning from Art Miami in Midtown, the premier Basel satellite fair.

David Smith, owner of the Amsterdam-based Leslie Smith Gallery, said he arrived at the booth Friday to find an empty holder on the wall where the artwork hung Thursday.

“I’ve been doing art shows all my life. Even when I was a kid, I went with my parents,” said Smith, 45. “I’ve never, ever had anything stolen.”

He reported the heist to show organizers and to Miami police, who dusted for fingerprints.

The 1956 piece, Visage aux Mains (Face with Hands), is a 16.5-inch-wide silver plate engraved with a smiling face and stick-finger hands. It’s No. 16 in a 20-plate series, Smith said, and is valued at about $85,000.

“There is no video surveillance or witnesses to this incident,” Det. Frederica Burden, a police spokeswoman, said in an email. A police report of the incident lists the crime as grand theft.

Art Miami is located at 3101 NE First Ave. in a temporary tent facility — guarded by the same company that conducts security for Art Basel, a separate fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

At Art Miami, security includes 24-hour guards at entrances and exits, as well as locks and chains on the doors. No video cameras are trained on each booth, which is hardly unusual for art fairs.

“There’s an investigation going on,” said Nick Korniloff, the fair’s director and partner.

Cleaning crews, fair employees and booth operators would have had access to the site overnight, he said. The fair has a list of all personnel allowed to work on the premises.

According to Smith, a security guard did a walk-through at about 10:30 p.m. and the Picasso was still in place. The gallery owner said he himself left Art Miami at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday, with his collection whole. The Picasso had hung there since Monday.

When he walked in at about 10:45 a.m. Friday, Smith said, the piece was gone.

By the time doors opened to fairgoers at 11 a.m., all visitors saw was a label beneath where the purloined Picasso had been. “Signed, numbered & Stamped with silver marks,” the label read in part, describing the piece.

Police asked the gallery to keep the booth untouched as they investigated, which means Smith could hardly focus on selling art in the fair’s first two hours — usually the busiest ones of the day.

“We had to shoo people off the booth,” he said. “I definitely missed people I didn’t speak to.”

Nothing else was missing or appeared disturbed, Smith said. The Picasso plate wasn’t the most valuable artwork on display, according to Smith: For example, a Picasso ceramic just below where the plate was hanging is worth about $365,000. The pilfered piece will be reported to an international database meant to inform art dealers of stolen work.

Smith speculated that the plate might have been small enough for someone to hide under a sweater or jacket. The neighboring ceramic piece was smaller but easier to break — and easier to spot as a Picasso, perhaps making it less attractive to filch.

“If you steal art, if it’s from a famous artist, it’s going to be hard to re-sell,” he said. “Either somebody steals it for himself to keep, or somebody, somewhere, someday will realize it’s stolen.”

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