Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone

 

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The Slifka Center and New Haven Public Library thefts did not prove difficult to solve. Police found no clues at the Slifka Center, but the CCTV footage at the library turned up the thief, who was immediately recognized by a library security guard.

He was Dennis Maluk, a 53-year-old resident of 70 Fairmont Avenue, New Haven, and a heroin addict. The police detained him in no time, and he was not reticent about disclosing the whereabouts of the paintings he had stolen. The big surprise was just how many he had lifted—a man who did not identify himself as a professional criminal, and who stole in order to feed his drug habit. Maluk had stockpiled at least 39 artworks, mostly paintings, from the greater New Haven area, in a matter of months. He had no idea of their worth, and it did not matter to him. Some of the paintings he had taken, like those by David Gelernter, were worth tens of thousands of dollars. But Maluk told police that he would swap stolen art for a few days’ worth of heroin, with a street value of perhaps $30 or $40 a pop.

Maluk quickly directed police to the home of his dealer, a member of a local criminal gang, Bruno Nestir. The 47-year-old New Haven resident was arrested on March 14, 2009, when police raided his home. What they found there was a microcosm of the venomous cross-trade in art, drugs and weapons. The illicit contents of Nestir’s home included 39 artworks, two shotguns, two rifles, two revolvers, quantities of heroin and marijuana packaged for street sale, and $947 in cash.

Only one of the artworks hung on Nestir’s wall, the rest were stacked on the floor, removed from their frames. Nestir, like Maluk, had no idea of the value of the art in his possession: objects that had been swiped from the Slifka Center, the library, the New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Yale-New Haven Hospital, among others. Nestir had simply understood that art has some value, surely greater than the $40 hits of heroin for which Maluk was willing to trade his stolen goods. Nestir told investigating detective Scott Branfurh that he was interested mostly in the frames—which would have find a market far more easily than the art itself. He had no idea what to do with the paintings.

Maluk had transformed himself into a thoughtful, professional art thief—although a very far cry from suave Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Maluk would “case” buildings, choosing places that were not primarily art centers, but which displayed works of art. These would rarely have art-specific security, and a missing work might be overlooked for some time. He would familiarize himself with the layouts and the habits of the staff, then wait until the building was about to close before taking a work of art, masking his exit by leaving en masse with other patrons. He chose works that were displayed near an exit, staircase or doorway, so that he would not have to walk far with the loot.
 

Maluk could be considered a professional art thief, but he stole for goods, not cash. Outside of the romanticized walls of film and fiction, there are very few criminals who might be considered dedicated art thieves. Most who steal art do so only once, and often on orders. The number of thieves who have stolen art more than once is very small: examples include Miles Connor, a Massachusetts thief who published a memoir about his exploits; Stephane Breitweiser, the Swiss waiter who stole, and kept, over a hundred paintings; Farhad Hakimzadeh, a wealthy Iranian who plumped his collection of rare maps and manuscripts with artifacts from the British Library; and Edward Forbes Smiley III, an antiquities dealer who was arrested for having taken over 100 rare maps from New England university libraries, including the Yale Beinecke Rare Books Library.

Hakimzadeh and Smiley may fit the Thomas Crown stereotype, but the vast majority of criminals involved in stolen art are more like Dennis Maluk, about whom there is nothing glamorous. The world is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on Maluk who, cumulatively, rob the world of thousands of artworks every year.
 

Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone

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