Off the wall

A strange string of art thefts hits local galleries -- is the once exploding market to blame?
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johnny@sfbg.com

It's Saturday morning, and Michael Rosenthal Gallery is crowded — because it's playing host to a baby shower. The current show of paintings by Terry Hoff is partly obscured by the small celebration. In one corner, Rosenthal sits on a couch. Aside from the dark circles around his eyes, you wouldn't know that he's caught up in perhaps the strangest of a string of recent art thefts at SF galleries.

At 3 a.m. on Friday, March 20, police notified Rosenthal that his Valencia Street space had been vandalized. Arriving at the site, he was surprised to discover that while a pair of computers, an expensive printer and scanner, and a bag of Nikon cameras were still there, four paintings from the current show by Hoff were amiss. "The first two cops [to arrive] were totally uninterested," Rosenthal says, adding that when he gave the missing works an estimated value of $40,000, the answer he received was blunt: "They said, 'Too bad — if the paintings were valued at $50,000, everyone would be here'" (SFPD didn't return calls for comment.)

The theft of the Hoff paintings marks the third time in the past six months that a street-level San Francisco gallery was the target of a robbery. On Oct. 15 last year, two paintings by the late Margaret Kilgallen were stolen from the SoMa space Gallery 16, which was putting on a 15-year retrospective. (Unlike the majority of the exhibition, neither Kilgallen piece was for sale.) Less than a month later, someone walked into the Mission District gallery Triple Base and took a painting by Jay Nelson from the wall.

"It's horrible," Gallery 16 owner Griff Williams says, when asked about the Kilgallen theft. "The whole experience continues to be horrible because we haven't settled any of this. There's a personal sadness — Margaret wasn't interested in the art market, and didn't sell her work by choice in the shows we did with her. It also points to the ugly side of the way things are valued, and how insurance companies want to undervalue the work."

"People don't know that if they steal artwork or buy stolen artwork, it has no value in the market," says Triple Base codirector Dina Pugh. "It doesn't have value unless you have the title to the work, and the gallery is always looking for stolen pieces."

The three recent thefts, while not necessarily related, share some commonalities beyond the street-level position of the galleries. Kilgallen, Nelson, and Hoff all knew or know the San Francisco artist Barry McGee, the sole focus of a lengthy April 2008 Artforum article on the proliferation and market value of stolen artworks. (In fact, Hoff owns work by both Kilgallen and McGee.) In a 2006 issue of ANP Quarterly, Darryl Smith from the Market Street gallery the Luggage Store recounts an experience buying a piece by McGee on the street.

"[The thefts] point to all these issues that the art world deals with in terms of valuation," says Williams, whose space has been vandalized more than once without any art being stolen. "As an art project, you could take someone's work and see what you can get for it on the street. With Barry's [McGee's] work, there's a street cred to stealing it."

The theft of the Terry Hoff paintings differs from the Gallery 16 and Triple Base robberies in one crucial way: the artworks were recovered. At press time, both the San Francisco police and the individual who returned the paintings were unavailable for comment. However, at 2 a.m. March 21, Rosenthal was awakened by a call from police informing him that the Hoff paintings were recovered, albeit with some scratches and damage. "It was a whirlwind of emotions," Hoff says of the experience.

In the current market, art might not seem to have strong value. "You're gonna sell Terry Hoff paintings on Market Street?" Williams asks, only somewhat rhetorically.

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