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Andrew Wyeth

Houston trap finds $200K painting taken by drunken thieves

Houston trap finds $200K painting taken by drunken thieves

Andrew Wyeth

Two newcomers walked into the upscale Simpson Galleries in Houston, Texas looking to make some quick cash, but they didn't seem to notice they were carrying the work of an American master, let alone that it was worth as much as $200,000.

Gallery owner Ray Simpson Jr. figured there was only one likely reason the men treated his business like a pawn shop and were willing to take quick cash rather than waiting to auction the piece later for more money: It was stolen.

 “They wanted me to buy the painting outright”, Simpson recalled Monday of an exchange that played out in May.

He convinced the suspicious men to let him lock the watercolor in the gallery's safe so he could evaluate it in order to make an offer.

Instead, Simpson verified his suspicions and quietly helped Houston police set a trap. As it turned out, the painting of a snow-covered swath of artist Andrew Wyeth's property in rural Pennsylvania had been stolen only a few miles away eight years earlier.

A group of burglars had broken into a River Oaks estate in 2000, partied and trashed the place while the owners vacationed in Colorado. The painting is the first and only of 23 works taken from the home to be found so far.

Authorities released the two men without charges and it was unclear whether investigators are any closer to breaking the case open and retrieving the other missing pieces.  A Houston police detective did not return calls seeking comment.

Simpson quickly recognized the painting's unique style, as it depicted the impact of buildings and other man-made structures rather than merely showing pristine countryside. Where the piece was hidden all this time and why someone tried to fence it in Houston remains unclear.

Artwork and booze

The thieves are believed to have not known much about art and grabbed the paintings as they took all they could, including bottles of booze. "It could have been 50 more years before that painting resurfaced," Simpson said. "A triangle of events worked out perfectly."

Simpson took a digital photo of the painting and contacted an international database of stolen works. "As in most cases, things that seem too good to be true mostly are," Simpson said. "It wasn't a heart-racing or pulse-racing moment, but the right decision had to be made or these guys could have taken the painting and we'd never see it again."

A few weeks later, Simpson called a cell-phone number for the men and said he was ready to pay cash. When the men entered the gallery, they were quickly surrounded by nearly a dozen plainclothes officers who had taken up nondescript hiding places in the area.

No guns were drawn. No shots were fired, Simpson recalled. Houston police declined to comment on the case, which remains open. The arrested men were later released when police determined they did not participate in the River Oaks burglary.

$6 billion a year

Christopher Marinello, an attorney appointed by the Insurers said thieves realize there is big money to be made in art and all too often, those buying and selling turn a blind eye. "We run into an incredible amount of dealers and collectors that don't want to know," he said.

The FBI estimates the stolen art industry worldwide to be worth about $6 billion a year.  "There is a lot of money in Houston and there is a lot of art, and unfortunately not everybody knows we exist," Marinello said. "We ask that people perform due diligence before they buy and before they sell to avoid some major headaches."

The painting, A Bridge, Race Gate, is now owned by an insurance company that compensated the River Oaks owner for her loss and is expected to auction it in New York later this year.

The River Oaks woman, who purchased the painting at the New York auction house less than a year before it was stolen, doesn't want it back, as it reminds her of her ex-husband, Marinello said.