The Time a Salvador Dali Painting Was Stolen From Rikers Island

Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1951
Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1951
Ron Gerelli/Express/Getty Images

On February 26, 1965, Salvador Dali awoke feeling feverish. With the temperature outside the window of his New York City hotel plummeting and the wind howling, he canceled a big item on the day’s agenda: a visit to Rikers Island. Neither he, his wife Gala, or his pet ocelot Babou, who traveled with him everywhere, would take the boat to the prison complex in the East River, where Dali was scheduled to give an art lesson to inmates. 

But Dali didn’t want to disappoint. Still clad in his pajamas, he summoned his associate Nico Yperifanos, who had organized the visit, and dictated a message: Dali wouldn’t make it to Rikers, but his art would. Brush in hand, Dali set about creating a surrealist interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion—a monstrous black blob wearing a crown of thorns, atop inky red-and-black splatters all set against a pale cross. Scrawled at the bottom of the four-by-five feet painting were the words: “For the dinning room of the prisoners Rikers Island S.D.” (Dali was never big on proper spelling.)

A picture from the time shows Yperifanos presenting the painting to a stern, and perhaps slightly befuddled-looking, Corrections Commissioner named Anna Kross. According to accounts later reported in the Los Angeles Times, Yperifanos delivered the painting with rousing words from Dali to the inmates: "He'd like to give a message to the prisoners that you are artists. Don't think your life is finished for you. With art, you have to always feel free.” 

Officials hung the painting in the cafeteria of the Correctional Institution for Men, near trash cans where inmates disposed of their leftovers. Over time, it racked up both ketchup stains and doubts about its provenance. When a warden named Alexander Jenkins took over in 1981, he was skeptical about whether Dali was truly the painting’s creator, telling one reporter, "There weren't any records on the painting, and for all I know it could have been an inmate's copy of a Dali.” 

The blob-of-thorns was taken down from its spot atop the trash cans and locked away, while a thick file of bureaucratic correspondence built up. Officials debated the best course of action—should the painting be cleaned, sold, or duplicated in prints to raise money for the prison? Finally, in the late 1980s, officials decided to re-hang the work (alongside a plaque authenticating it) in a new location, near the prison’s main entrance, between a soda fountain and pay phones. This time, it would be far from prisoners, kept behind locked doors about 100 feet away. 

In the end, the inmates weren’t a danger to the art—the guards were. In early March 2003, staff noticed that the painting looked different: smaller, missing its mahogany-and-gold frame, and somehow transformed from the work of a master artist to the product of a child “with no artistic talent.” The staff called the police, and suspicion soon fell on prison officers—after all, not many people knew of the painting’s existence, and the fake didn’t exactly look like the work of a professional art thief. 

According to court documents, the theft was hatched in the Rikers bodega—a store inside the massive complex (Rikers also has its own schools, ball fields, barbershops, bakery, laundromat, print shop, and car wash). Two assistant deputy wardens—one of whom had access to the key for the painting's plexiglass display case—and two officers believed they could sell the painting for $1 million, and planned to split the proceeds. 

There was just one problem: The painting was in full view of two 24-hour guard stations. To provide a distraction, one of the assistant deputy wardens would trigger a false fire alarm, during which all prison staff were required to meet at a staging area a mile away. The plan was for the thieves to hang back, with one unlocking the case, removing the Dali and stapling the fake in its place, while another smuggled the real Dali to his car and then to a storage space rented on the Internet under a fake name. After one aborted attempt, the thieves pulled off the caper successfully around midnight on March 1, 2003. It was a perfect crime—or so they thought. 

But once the crude fake triggered staff concern, the men started sweating. One of the officers, Greg Sokol, turned himself in and began co-operating with investigators, secretly recording conversations with the other men. Another officer, Timothy Pina, also co-operated with police and taped his co-conspirators. By June 2003, the four men had been dismissed from the Corrections Department and charged with grand larceny. Initially, all four denied the charges, but Sokol, Pina, and an assistant deputy warden named Mitchell Hochhauser later pled guilty. Hochhauser was sentenced to three years in prison, Pina was sentenced to 5 years probation, and Sokol was sentenced to three years probation and fined $1000. Another assistant deputy warden, Benny Nuzzo, was acquitted of charges that he had masterminded the theft

The painting has never been recovered. Hochhauser told prosecutors that Nuzzo had said he destroyed the art in a fit of panic not long after stealing it. As a spokesman for then-mayor Bloomberg put it around the time of the theft, “Who knew that it might have been safer left in the cafeteria?" 

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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