The Unsolved New York City Art Heists of Christmas 1990
Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
In May, the auction record for the Abstract Expressionist hero Lee Krasner was shattered at Sotheby’s, as the monumental painting The Eye is the First Circle (1960) was purchased for $11.6 million, making Krasner one of the few female artists in the eight-digit club. Days after the sale, the work’s buyers were revealed: Emily and Mitchell Rales, the collectors who own the private museum Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland. When the painting is installed in the sprawling galleries amid other works from the Rales collection, Krasner will take her rightful place among work by Ab-Ex giants such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
But The Eye is the First Circle was very nearly lost to history. The record-breaking painting was involved in one of the most bizarre unsolved art crime sprees of the last few decades. In the days leading up to Christmas in 1990, four works of art were lifted from three different locations—and together, the stolen pieces were valued at $4.3 million, or $8.3 million when adjusted for inflation.
The theft of the Krasner was mentioned in a Sotheby’s press release preceding the sale in May. It explained it was implicated in one of a “string of three separate burglaries leading up to Christmas” of 1991, during which the thieves nabbed “paintings from various galleries throughout New York City.” But apart from that glancing reference, virtually no information about the crime spree exists online. To tell the story required a deep dive into the microfilms at the New York Public Library, and an interview with one of the dealers who was showing the Krasner at the time it was stolen.
The first crime occurred on December 17, 1990, at the West 23rd Street gallery of Peder Bonnier. A dealer who was one of the first to open a space in Chelsea, Bonnier’s place in art history was secured when he convinced his friend Larry Gagosian to ride with him from SoHo to his new digs, marking the mega-dealer’s first-ever trip to the neighborhood. Upon arriving at the space on the block of West 23rd Street between 10th and 11th avenues in Chelsea for the first time, he and Bonnier split a bottle of wine with the building’s owner, the artist Sandro Chia, and Gagosian leased the ground floor on the spot to establish his first New York gallery.
Less known is Bonnier’s role in the bizarre 1990 art-crime spree. According to a recap of the thefts written by Charles V. Bagli and published in the New York Observer in January 1991, the thief rode the elevator up to Bonnier’s office, where there was an untitled Willem de Kooning gouache work from 1962 valued at $750,000. A detective said that the thief absconded with the work without a trace.
Just two days later, the second crime occurred across town at the ancillary showroom of the Robert Miller Gallery, on East 20th Street in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. It was also the home of Robert Miller Gallery director John Cheim, who would go on to found the storied Cheim & Read gallery with Howard Read a few years later. On December 19th—at some point after 11:00 a.m. and before 6:15 p.m., according to a crime brief published in the New York Daily News—the crooks broke into the showroom at the house that was used by Cheim to display works owned by or consigned to the gallery. When they entered the seventh-floor loft, the thieves cut Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle out of its frame and snapped up David Salle’s Sales Girls (1983). They fled in a hurry, leaving the door open on their way out. The Krasner was valued at $1 million at the time, the Salle was worth $400,000; an insurance company offered a $50,000 lump sum to anyone who could provide information on the whereabouts of the works.
Chaim Soutine, L'apprenti (The Apprentice), ca. 1922.
Reached via email while vacationing in Italy, Cheim declined to speak at length about the ordeal, saying, “I know little more about it other than it being an unpleasant experience from 30 years ago.” He added that he still lives in the loft the thieves had robbed nearly three decades ago.
The third crime occurred just two days later, and was perhaps the strangest of the three. On December 21st, a driver was transporting Chaim Soutine’s painting L’Apprenti (ca. 1922) from a framing shop to Beadleston Gallery, the since-shuttered outfit run by dealer William Beadleston at 60 East 91st Street. Along the way, the truck stopped to drop something off at Acquavella Galleries on East 79th Street, and while the driver was inside someone swooped in, hopped into the driver’s seat, and sped off.
Due to the thief’s uncanny timing, an insurance investigator suggested to Bagli that the person who drove off with the truck had been hired by someone with knowledge of the Soutine’s whereabouts. Others were simply baffled, given how hard it is to sell stolen work.
“It’s strange that they went after that painting,” Harold Smith, the president of an insurance firm that was looking into the disappearance of the Soutine, told Bagli at the time. “Good paintings are being stolen and they seem to be put into a deep freeze somewhere. At some point, they’ll start being laundered and find their way into countries that have a low statute of limitations.”
The Krasner was eventually found and restored; it remained in the collection of Robert Miller’s wife, Sarah Wittenborn Miller, until she consigned it to Sotheby’s in May. The Salle was also recovered in 1991; the truck that had been carrying the Soutine was found in Harlem a few days later, but the painting was gone. At the time of Bagli’s article, the whereabouts of Bonnier’s de Kooning were also unknown.
Accordingly, there is no additional publicly available information about the thief or thieves. Nor is it known if the three New York City art thefts of December 1990 were actually connected, or if they occurred in rapid succession by coincidence.
“It has always surprised me that the FBI and police were unable to track down the perpetrators,” Cheim said. In their defense, at the time the FBI may have been preoccupied with the investigation into the greatest unsolved art theft in modern history: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, which had happened earlier that year in Boston. An email to FBI’s art crime unit received no response.
But one person did suggest to the Observer one possible motivation behind the timing of the crime: the hysteria surrounding Christmas shopping. Constance Lowenthal, of the stolen-art tracking organization the International Foundation for Art Research, said: “During the holidays, these people work harder.”