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?" 

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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