Thief steals paintings from Utah artist's home

Published August 3, 2014 8:19 pm
Crime • Worth $48,000, some were taken a few at a time from Larry Nielson's Ephraim home.
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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.

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."

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?

Hollywood has long peddled the image of the sophisticated art thief, equipped with high-tech gadgets and educated in the nuances of art history. But according to art theft expert Anthony Amore, author of "Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists," most art thieves can't tell the difference between a Rembrandt and a Picasso.

"Art is stolen by guys who steal anything they can get their hands on," career criminals who are just as likely to burglarize an auto parts store as an art gallery, Amore said. "To call somebody a professional art thief is kind of a misnomer."

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner is the FBI's foremost expert on art crime. She has a doctoral degree in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Arizona and has been working in the field of cultural heritage protection since 1997.

"I haven't really met any smart art thieves," Magness-Gardiner said. "There is the occasional, for want of a better word, mastermind. But by and large that's not what happens."

Nielson is fairly sure that whoever stole his art is no appreciator of fine craftsmanship — his house contains valuable antiques that the thief ignored. Instead, Nielson gets the feeling the thief had been to his house before, knew the art was there, and figured it might be worth something.

"They knew the house. I sleep upstairs in this big old Victorian home, and it just feels like somebody might have known," Nielson said. "At least they notice when my light goes off in the evening."

Most art is stolen out of people's homes, according to Magness-Gardiner, so in a sense, the theft of Nielson's art was typical. Thieves often try to sell it quickly — thrift shops, pawn shops and local antiques dealers are popular buyers — and are generally unaware of its actual value, Magness-Gardiner said.

The investigation •Nielson's longtime friend Bud Snedecor has been helping Nielson spread the news of the theft while keeping tabs on the investigation by Ephraim police. Snedecor lamented that local police have not reached out to the FBI to help with the investigation, which he said was necessary to track down the art.

But the bureau generally doesn't meddle in local art crimes until the art has been transported across state lines, Magness-Gardiner said.

Sheila Bringhurst, with the Sanpete County Sheriff's Office, confirmed that the FBI has not been brought in because investigators have no evidence that the art has been transported interstate.

Ephraim police continue to investigate the theft, and other local police agencies are aware the art was stolen and could identify it if they happened to come across it, Bringhurst said. Local media have covered the story, and citizens are on the lookout for Nielson's distinctive pieces.

Still, there is a chance that Nielson's art has already been shuttled far beyond the confines of Sanpete County. Recovery efforts have been complicated by the inconvenient fact that the FBI's National Crime Information Center, an electronic database for stolen goods, only lists items with serial numbers.

"Cars and phones and televisions and large appliances, anything with a serial number, can go in that database," Magness-Gardiner said. "Art can't go in the database because it doesn't have a serial number on it."

Bringhurst said the database has rejected her numerous efforts to enter the unserialized art into the database. Nielson, for his part, remains frustrated that his most prized possessions, stolen from his ancestral home while he slept, cannot be listed as stolen because of what appears to be a technicality.

"Putting a serial number on art, people just don't do it," Nielson said. "So that would mean if they stole your jewelry, antiques, clothing, none of that has serial numbers on it. It seems really unfair."

The FBI maintains a National Stolen Art Database specifically designed for stolen items that don't have serial numbers, but, for reasons that remain unclear, Nielson's works have not been entered into that database, either.

Officials from the Ephraim police department would not comment for this story, saying it was an ongoing investigation, but an Ephraim police official who declined to give his name said the department had no suspects.

Neilson is asking anyone with information to call Sanpete County dispatch at 435-835-2345.


Twitter: @Harry_Stevens



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