Art Market

The Case of the Disappearing 800-Pound Hammer Sculpture

Benjamin Sutton
Jan 24, 2019 5:05PM

Doug Unkrey, The Hammer, 2017. Photo courtesy of the City of Healdsburg.

Stealing an 800-pound, 21-foot-long sculpture of a hammer is no easy feat, but one night last fall, a group of thieves nailed it.

In what was almost surely, pound-for-pound, the biggest art heist of 2018, artist Doug Unkrey’s monumental sculpture The Hammer (2017) disappeared from a grassy traffic island in front of the local community center in Healdsburg, a city of nearly 12,000 in Northern California’s wine country.

“My first thought was that it could be at the bottom of the public pool,” Unkrey said. “Some trick!”

The artist himself put up a reward of $1,000, and another local artist even placed a giant nail on the spot where The Hammer had been as a kind of sculptural bait. Unfortunately, neither effort has worked. Unkrey’s hammer, which was not insured but has been valued at $15,000, has not been seen since the evening of October 5th, and the local police have no leads.

“At first, it seemed like this was more or less a prank,” said Healdsburg police officer Darryl Erkel. “Based on its size, it’s pretty hard to conceal, but at this point, nobody’s come forward, and we’ve exhausted any possible leads we had.”

A hammer like no other

Doug Unkrey. Image courtesy of Wayne Freedman.


From the time it was installed in May, The Hammer was a hit.

“I always knew somebody would want to have The Hammer because of everybody giving me compliments on it,” Unkrey said. “I didn’t ever think that somebody would steal it.”

Unveiled as part of a public art festival and sponsored by the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation in nearby Geyserville, the work was an evocative and detailed rendering of a well-used hammer. Its handle was made with part of a redwood tree, while a 6-foot-tall piece of metal at one end served as its head. A large-scale replica of an everyday, handheld object in the vein of something Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg might have made, it was due to remain on display at the Healdsburg community center through the spring of 2019, at which time it was slated to be put on view elsewhere. A Canadian resort company had been in talks with Unkrey about buying the sculpture for its development in Healdsburg, according to a spokesperson for the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation. Then the thieves struck.

“My initial impression was that somebody had just simply picked it up so that it could be moved to another location, but when I checked with the foundation and the artist, they said that no, it’s still supposed to be there,” Erkel said.

From tool to loot

Doug Unkrey's initial sketches of The Hammer. Image courtesy of Wayne Freedman.

How, exactly, do you steal a giant, 800-pound ball-peen hammer? If the effort it took to install the sculpture is anything to go by, it’s not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly.

“When I moved it, I used a small crane on the back of a truck and I had a flatbed trailer,” said Unkrey. He added that the process of stealing it, base and all, without such equipment could not have been easy.

“I think you would need at least eight people if you did it without machinery because it’s very awkward,” he said. “It’s 21 feet long, it’s kinda round, it’s not easy to hold onto, you’d need straps if you were gonna lift it without a crane. You’d want to put straps around it or some boards for people to put it on their shoulders or something, because it’s just too awkward.”

The spot where Unkrey’s sculpture was installed was not under video surveillance, Erkel said, and no nearby security cameras picked up the thieves as they made off with the hijacked hammer. The community center’s location near the north end of town also meant that the thieves would not have had to pass many businesses before getting onto Freeway 101, and, from there, could have taken the sculpture just about anywhere.

“They came at the right time on the right day at the right hour, and everything worked in their favor for taking it,” the officer added.

In the nearly four months since the heist, Erkel’s leads dried up and he began contacting local recycling centers, thinking the sculpture might have been sold for scrap. “They’ve all been alerted but nobody has brought anything like that in,” he said.

The hammer of justice

Original unloading of Doug Unkrey's The Hammer , 2017. Photo courtesy of the City of Healdsburg.

Simply by virtue of the sculpture’s size, Unkrey and Erkel both remain confident that it will turn up eventually. Some workers with Pacific Gas and Electric Company even told the artist they’d keep an eye out for it when they go visit remote farms, fields, and other secluded properties. Others have suggested it’s been taken far, far away.

“Some people have said: ‘It’s probably in another country by now,’” Unkrey said. “Because where would you put it? You couldn’t sell it.”

In the meantime, the artist said he plans to start putting GPS tracking devices in his sculptures—“just in case.” He’s also tried to keep a sense of humor and proportion about the giant hammer’s disappearance.

“I’ve had a lot worse things happen to me, so I really can’t complain—I’ve still got all my fingers,” he said. “I’m gonna keep a positive attitude because you can’t take The Hammer and get away with it.”

Benjamin Sutton