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Courtesy Larry Nielson Utah Artist Larry Nielson was robbed of 24 works of art. He has offered a reward for information leading to their recovery.
Thief steals paintings from Utah artist’s home
Crime » Worth $48,000, some were taken a few at a time from Larry Nielson’s Ephraim home.
First Published Aug 03 2014 09:25 am • Last Updated Aug 04 2014 10:12 am

Larry Nielson couldn’t understand how he kept misplacing his art.

In the weeks before the big heist, Nielson would notice that a painting wasn’t where he remembered putting it. He must have left it somewhere else among the hundreds of works of art he had stored around the house, he thought.

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On May 30, Nielson had planned to have his paintings photographed so he could market them online. Photographers had already arrived at his Ephraim home, at 351 N. Main St., when he realized more than two dozen paintings were missing. This time, he knew he had not misplaced them.

"Some of the best pieces were missing. I had just set them up the night before," Nielson said. "I was stunned."

For the previous two weeks, he now believes, someone had been breaking into his house at night and stealing paintings, perhaps one or two at a time. Then, one evening, the thief, or thieves, decided to steal several paintings at once. After doing an inventory, Nielson estimated that more than two dozen paintings with a combined value of $48,000 had been pilfered from his home.

"They’ve been casing the place, taking periodically a few at a time, very slowly," Nielson said. "Then this big heist was a knockout."

Nielson’s house, built in the 1890s by Danish contractor and Ephraim hotelier Soren Johnson, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nielson’s grandfather, Louis B. Nielson, bought the house in 1905. It’s where Larry Nielson grew up, where he returned to 11 years ago when his mother became terminally ill, and it’s where he lives today.

It’s the house where he slept as someone sneaked around in the middle of the night, perhaps several times, plundering his most prized artwork.

"Paintings are such an extension of yourself. It’s not as though it’s something I bought at a store. It’s not a watch or something," Nielson said. "It’s very personal. It feels like I’ve been invaded internally."

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A singular artistic style »For two decades, Nielson, 78 — former backup singer for stars like Glen Campbell and Sonny and Cher, previous art director at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii and 1962 graduate of Brigham Young University — has mastered a singular artistic style. Using weathered barn wood as his canvas, Nielson paints ghostly renderings of Native American faces, lonely locomotives, Great Plains wildlife, and horse-drawn buggies kicking up dust.

"He does some beautiful work," said Kim Crittendon, manager of the Eagle Dancer Gallery in League City, Texas.

Crittendon’s gallery received its first Larry Nielson piece about six years ago from an estate. They liked it so much they called Nielson to see if he would send more. Crittendon estimated they’ve exhibited about a dozen of Nielson’s pieces over the years.

"The pieces we’ve had have been very powerful images. Very life-like," Crittendon said. "There’s just a lot of talent in there."

Johnny Cash, Liza Minnelli, Carol Burnett and Janis Joplin have all bought Nielson’s art, according to Nielson’s website. One of his most famous works, a re-creation of the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, was presented to President George W. Bush after the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"His work is unique," said the acclaimed Utah painter Randall Lake, who has known Nielson for more than four decades. "He’s the only painter anywhere that’s painting on old wood from barns and fences."

Lake called Nielson a "very fine draftsman" who creates "marvelous" works."

A smart art thief? » The theft shattered Nielson. For weeks, he couldn’t paint, and it’s only recently that he’s started up on his art again. He’s re-created some of the works he lost, but mostly he’s making new ones.

"I’m getting back on track," he said, "but I’m still uptight about it."

Among other things, Nielson said, he is tormented by the thought of the thief. Who was he? Why did he do it? Where is he now?

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