ARTnewsletter Archive

Art Thefts Highlight Complex Insurance Issues

Last September, ten Andy Warhol silk screens of sports celebrities were stolen from the Los Angeles home of 69-year-old Seattle art collector Richard Weisman.

NEW YORK—Last September, ten Andy Warhol silk screens of sports celebrities were stolen from the Los Angeles home of 69-year-old Seattle art collector Richard Weisman. The theft, which was reported on Sept. 3 by the family’s long-time nanny, left no signs of any forced entry into the house. The ten screenprints were all commissioned by Weisman in 1977, and include such subjects as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Hamill, Jack Nicklaus, Pelé, O. J. Simpson and even Weisman himself. The silk screens were insured for $25 million, but Weisman has not filed an insurance claim for them, stating in an interview that he didn’t want insurance investigators going through his financial and personal records. Insurance companies—in this case the insurer was New York–based Chartis—often hire private investigators to “examine the situation of someone who has suffered a major loss,” Los Angeles police detective Don Hrycyk, who has specialized in art thefts for the past 15 years, told ARTnewsletter.

Looking for missing Warhols has kept Detective Hrycyk busy over the past several months. Over the past year, his office tracked down five small (6-by-6-inch) Warhol portraits of artists Lee Bontecou, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Frank Stella that were reported stolen in 1986. The victim of that theft, Los Angeles art dealer and collector Ulrike Kantor, also did not file a claim for the works, which had an insurance value of $160,000.

The trail of the five Kantor Warhols took a number of months to unwind. According to Hrycyk, Kantor’s son Niels Kantor, a teenager at the time, allegedly stole his mother’s Warhols, which she had stored in a box in their house, and sold them to a friend, Brian Byhower, who now works as a real estate agent in southern California.

According to Hrycyk, in 1998 Byhower offered to sell three of the Warhols to a Santa Monica art gallery, Ikon Ltd. Fine Art, which agreed to the purchase subject to authentication of the works by the Warhol Art Authentication Board. The board confirmed the paintings’ authenticity, but did not contact the New York–based Art Loss Register, which had been informed of the theft in 1986.

Ikon’s owner, Kay Richards, knew that Niels Kantor—who by then owned a gallery of his own in Beverly Hills—was a collector of Warhol, so she contacted him about purchasing the artworks, and he bought them that year, Hrycyk said. Over the years, Niels Kantor established himself as a contemporary-art dealer, even partnering with a well-known New York gallery owner in 2005; the partnership ended in 2007.

Last year, Hrycyk said, Byhower brought his remaining two Warhols to Christie’s to sell, and the portaits—of Rosenquist and Bontecou—were included in the catalogue for the Nov. 13 morning sale of contemporary art, but were pulled from the sale: According to the detective, Niels Kantor’s assistant called on behalf of Kantor to alert Christie’s and the Los Angeles police department that the works were stolen. “At first, Niels tried to accuse Byhower of having stolen the paintings from his mother,” Hrycyk said, “but he finally admitted stealing them himself.” Kantor can not be charged in the theft of the paintings because of a three-year statute of limitations, but according to the detective he could potentially be charged in his purchase of the three paintings from Ikon, since he allegedly “received property that he knew had been stolen.” According to Hrycyk, Ulrike Kantor chose not to press charges against her son. Neither Byhower, Niels Kantor or Martin responded to requests for comment from ARTnewsletter.

Deciding not to file an insurance claim for stolen artwork is not unheard of; Hrycyk told ARTnewsletter that Ulrike Kantor chose not to because she wanted to retain title to the works in the event they were recovered. Insurance companies technically assume title to the objects on which they have paid out a claim, although they usually offer them back to the policyholder in return for the amount of the claim (plus the reimbursement of their costs) or some more current value if they are later recovered. According to Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel of the Art Loss Register, “art galleries will not always file a claim following a theft. People are always surprised to find that out.” The reason, he said, may be that the gallery owners worry that the claim will result in their being dropped as a policyholder or that the value of the object stolen may be less than or not much greater than the deductible for which they would be responsible.

Larger insurance claims usually also result in investigations that may delve into the personal and professional lives of the claimant. New York City–based AXA Art Insurance hires private investigators, for instance, when the value of a theft reaches the $15 million/20 million level, according to Colin Quinn, national director of claims management. He noted, however, that among his company’s policyholders it is “very rare” for a major theft to not result in a claim.