THE GREAT FORT WORTH ART CAPER: HOWDUNIT?

No screenwriter could have dreamed up a wilder scenario, and the final reel still hasn’t been shot. On January 17, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, boasting the tightest security system in the world, lost a Rembrandt etching. Not in the dead of night, as one might expect, but in the middle of the afternoon. Someone walked in, pried up a Plex-iglas cover, peeled the etching from its paper backing, and walked out. Museum officials were stunned and embarrassed. Where were the guards? What about the television cameras and all the other sophisticated surveillance equipment? And why that particular etching? It’s too well known to be sold to reputable dealers and collectors and probably not important enough to turn heads in the black market. “Just a nice run-of-the-mill Rembrandt.” said one curator.

Two days later, director Richard Brown received a phone call from a Denton sculptor, Arnold Austad, who claimed that a hitchhiker had left the etching in the seat of his car, folded into a Hustler magazine. The two talked briefly about collector’s marks and other identifying features. Brown was convinced the caller had the etching. Without waiting for Fort Worth police, who were on their way to the museum, Brown and two security guards raced off to Denton in the middle of a snowstorm. The police were furious. Procedures had been violated. And what if the man was crazy, or intended to hold Brown for ransom, a familiar ploy in European art thefts? “That crossed my mind,” Brown said subsequently. “I could have been a piece of cheese in a trap. Fortunately, there was no trap.” Shades of Bogart in Key Largo.

The police arrived in Denton just in time to learn that Brown and Austad were on their way back to Fort Worth. That afternoon, an elated Brown went before television cameras to announce that Austad would receive a $1000 reward. Shortly thereafter, police phoned to say that Austad had failed a polygraph test, that his fingerprints were on the matting, and that there would be no reward. To the suggestion that Austad’s story was totally preposterous, Brown replied that it had seemed plausible to him. especially since Austad voluntarily returned to Fort Worth. Others, including one museum official, explain the confusion as a conflict of priorities. The Kimbell wanted the etching back and the police wanted a body.

Austad remained in Tarrant County Jail in lieu of $15,000 bond, which District Judge Gordon Gray refused to lower. Denton residents describe Austad as a committed sculptor whose work is on exhibit in a number of public buildings, including the library and city hall. On January 28, friends held a “Rembrandt Bandit Benefit” at the Tropicana Club. The affair netted $1500, enough for bond except that no bondsman in Tarrant County would write a bond for the usual 10 percent. Police said they had information that Austad was AWOL from the Army in Canada: this may have affected the situation.

Austad eventually was released on bond, and now awaits the next twist. That may come if, after all this, the Kimbell indicates to the grand jury that they prefer not to press charges, in which case the grand jury would likely drop it, in spite of the fact that the police claim they have a strong case against Austad. The Kimbell will perhaps do so to avoid further hassle. And embarrassment.

Because whatever happens to Austad, the most intriguing thing about the theft is that it happened at all. The Kimbell has long touted its security, though now museum officials refuse to comment on the action of their guards or the long term consequences. But just to be on the safe side, they’ve installed stronger bolts and thicker Plexiglas, added more security personnel, and fine-tuned their electronic gear. Such moves won’t please the many who have complained that the museum is already a fortress. “They’re slightly cracked on the subject of electronic surveillance,” says one local curator with dismay – and a hint of amusement. “They practically have orgasms over that electronic board. God knows what the place will be like with even more gadgetry.”

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