Sun, Dec 05, 2004 - Page 7 News List

A doorbell rings and a painting's gone

ART NABBERS When a gallery worker reached for the button that unlocked the front door, the men who walked in didn't work for the telephone company

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

She was expecting a telephone repair crew, so the woman at the desk -- the only person inside the two-room gallery on the Upper East Side known as Adam Williams Fine Art Ltd. -- reached for the button that unlocked the front door. The two men who walked in turned out not to be telephone company employees.

They also turned out not to be potential customers, the police say, but rather thieves who left with a 19th-century French painting that one of them had slipped under his coat.

Now, four days after the theft and two days after the gallery's insurance adjuster announced a US$50,000 reward, the investigation is continuing. Some other gallery owners say the theft was a disturbing reminder that life in the rarefied world of expensive paintings and hushed Manhattan galleries is not without its risks.

It was also a reminder that the world of small galleries has its safeguards, but that they may not be as effective as in museums. That fact set the Adam Williams case apart from, say, the brazen seizure of Edvard Munch's "Scream."

That painting, a symbol of existential angst (and the modern Expressionist school), was taken by armed robbers, who yanked it and another painting off the wall of a crowded museum in Oslo, Norway, last August.

The theft at Adam Williams, at 50 E. 78th St., was "not typical, but it happens," said Amanda Hannon, an art historian with Art Loss Register, which maintains a database of lost and stolen art worldwide. About 10,000 items are added to the database every year, she said, from paintings lost in transit "and things that have just gone missing as well as thefts such as this case."

Some other gallery owners said they have had their problems with thieves who, like the two men at Adam Williams, simply rang the doorbell. For Helen C. Fioratti, the owner of L'Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, five blocks from the Adam Williams gallery, the theft was all too familiar. Fioratti, like Williams, was in Europe when thieves struck.

"I think it's a plague," Fioratti said. "There are always two people and they always pretend -- one wanted to go to the bathroom."

Like the men at Adam Williams, the thieves at Fioratti's gallery distracted the one employee who was in the gallery at the time, Fioratti said. Unlike the thieves at Adam Williams, the two at Fioratti's gallery were women.

Fioratti's employee realized as soon as they left that her wallet had been stolen. Not until Fioratti flew home a couple of days later did she realize that the thieves had also made off with two paintings by the 18th-century artist Jean-Baptiste Lallemand.

Styles of dress complicate things for gallery owners. A generation ago, gallery owners might have been suspicious of someone who was casually dressed. But now rock legends and movie stars do their shopping in jeans, so the two men in the Adam Williams case did not look out of place.

The police described them as being in their 30s. One was slightly shorter than the other. One had a black ski jacket and a dark shirt. The other, the police said, was wearing a tan overcoat and dark slacks.

At Adam Williams, the insurance adjuster, Gregory Smith, said the two separated once they were inside. The employee, whom the police did not identify, "was trying to keep them in her line of sight," Smith said, "but eventually one did get out of her sight and the other one was distracting her." As soon as they left, she realized that something was missing and ran into the street.

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