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August 3, 2011

Thieves try to steal abstract sculpture

ART HISTORY - Three "dumb thieves" tried to steal an $1-million sculpture by famed Canadian abstract artist Jean-Paul Riopelle ended up ditching the pricey sculpture in the Quebec woods. The sculpture was found, broken but fixable.

Art experts say the thieves probably hoped to sell the one-of-a-kind bronze sculpture for scrap metal, which would have netted them as little as a few hundred dollars.

The sculpture, titled "La Défaite", had been sitting for 40 years outside the studio and home of the late artist in the Laurentians town of Estérel, north of Montreal. The massive sculpture weighs about a thousand pounds and over 6 feet tall.

A groundskeeper noticed on Monday that one of the pieces had been toppled. When a security guard showed up to check the grounds, he surprised the thieves at work.

One of the thieves fled into the woods, while two others drove away in a white van.

The thieves didn’t get far. News of the theft quickly spread via Twitter and in the news media, and Quebec police found the empty van Tuesday. A few hours later, they found the sculpture in the woods about two km from the Riopelle property.

The sculpture was found broken into 4 pieces to make them easier to carry.

“These guys were imbeciles. They were certainly not professionals,” said Simon Blais, an abstract art gallery owner and Riopelle expert in Montreal. He said it would have been close to impossible to unload an artwork of that bulk and weight. “You can’t smuggle it. You can’t put it on a plane.”

The loss of the 1963 sculpture would have been a tragedy. Riopelle, known chiefly for his abstract mosaic canvasses painted with a palette knife, also produced sculptures in the 1960s. Adding to its value was the fact that it was a single cast and came from his early sculpture works. It was purely one of a kind.

“This is a major work of art of an iconic Canadian painter and sculptor of the 20th century,” says Simon Blais. “It’s a part of Canada’s heritage. Imagine losing it because some dumb thieves hoped they might get a few hundred dollars in scrap metal. It would have been tragic.”

It wouldn't be the first time.

A two-tonne bronze sculpture by Henry Moore worth £3-million was stolen from the estate of the Henry Moore Foundation in England in 2005, and police believe it was melted down and sold for about £1,500.

The thieves in the Laurentians didn’t realize what they’d put their hands on – and didn’t appreciate that the odd-shaped, highly abstract piece of art sitting outside a rustic waterfront home was the work of a man whose canvasses hang in the most famous museums of the world.

Montreal-born Jean-Paul Riopelle, who died at 78 in 2002, was an abstract art master and one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated painters.

“I think the thieves didn’t realize the gravity of what they’d done,” says Jean-Paul Riopelle’s widow, Huguette Vachon. “Once they saw all the publicity, they realized their mistake and panicked.”

The damaged sculpture will be appraised, restored and then eventually displayed again in a safer place.

The three thieves are still at large.

See Also
Canadian Art

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