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?"