Impressions of intrigue
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
NAPLES -- At PLG Art, a chic gallery specializing in edgy, contemporary sculpture and painting, the owners joked that the stolen master works were for sale in the back because they didn't look right on the walls.
Over at Kelsey's Collection, a gallery specializing in Russian impressionism, co-owner Melissa Waite sadly predicted that the world wouldn't see the paintings for generations, after the taint starts to fade.
And while some in the local arts scene sniffed that Naples was already well-known as a prominent arts community, others suggested the heist solidifies Naples' reputation.
"We've hit the big time now. We hear about this in Paris and the Gardner Museum in Boston. There's a degree of infamy in the whole episode that will bring attention to Naples," said William Meek, owner of the city's oldest gallery, Harmon-Meek, on Fifth Avenue S.
And, he added, "I think the realization that paintings of this caliber are here, in someone's home, will probably excite more sales."
Whoever sneaked into a new beachfront mansion two weeks ago and crept off with paintings by Monet and Renoir, together worth about $6.7-million, provided a rare look inside the thriving world of high art in this tony gulfside city, where waterfront mansions can be confused with small hotels.
The paintings were lesser-known pieces by two of the great masters: Renoir's Place de la Trinite of 1893, one of several he painted with that title; and Monet's Vetheuil, vu de l'ile Saint-Martin, one of more than a dozen of his with Vetheuil in the title. Each was signed by the artist.
The Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen art, lists the value of the Monet at about $4-million and the Renoir at $2.7-million. The owners' insurer has offered a $100,000 reward for their return.
Police say they have few solid leads, but speculation about who took the paintings and why has become a parlor game among Naples art enthusiasts. There is no shortage of theories in the galleries on Fifth Avenue S, the shopping and cultural center.
There's the inside job theory: One in the endless stream of workers at the mansion recognized the value of the works and took them.
"(The thieves would) have to be really stupid and really lucky for that to be the case," said Peg Goldbert, a longtime dealer of international modern art and co-owner of PLG Art.
If it is an inside job, art experts say, the odds that the thieves will be able to fence the artwork are virtually nil. The pieces are now tagged as hot, and anyone who tries to sell them at auction, to a museum or to a legitimate collector likely would be caught.
Both works have been listed with the FBI, Interpol and the Art Loss Register, a private firm that finds missing art by checking its database against the catalogs of auction houses around the world. Museums and dealers also regularly check the register before making a purchase.
More likely, Goldbert and others said, is the theory of the black marketeer: A thief who knew how to dump the paintings in the underworld, where they could be used for bargaining, or even ransom.
"They already have a buyer for it," speculated Stephanie Sherman, co-owner of the Davis/Keil Fine Art Gallery, also on Fifth Avenue S. "They wouldn't have been taken if they didn't know where it was going.
"It's going to go away to a hidden place for a very long time, and probably in our children's lifetime, they'll come out in the auctions."
Waite, of Kelsey's Collections, agreed.
"It's not like anyone who ever bought it could even show it," she said. "Three generations later, somebody's going to be giving it back."
Most intriguing is the spurned admirer theory: A wealthy scion dearly wanted one or both pieces but was outbid at auction. Over the years, this person kept track of the paintings, stewed and plotted -- and finally sent someone to steal them.
David Shillingford, director of operations for the Art Loss Register, said all three theories are plausible, though the more valuable a piece -- and these are quite valuable -- the more likely it was taken by an expert.
Shillingford noted the Naples paintings aren't large: The Renoir measures just a shade over 2 feet by 2 feet, not quite the size of a dorm room Budweiser poster. The Monet is about the same size.
They would not be hard to hide or spirit overseas, he said.
"I think that the chances of it being in Naples is about as high as it being in Naples, Italy, right now."
* * *
The Monet and the Renoir were displayed together in the gulffront home of Lee R. Anderson Sr. and his wife, Katharine. Anderson, 63, is chairman of the APi Group Inc., a private, Minnesota holding company that specializes in construction materials and fire sprinkler systems. He did not respond to interview requests for this article.
The Andersons bought the lot on Gordon Drive in 1998 for almost $5.8-million. They razed the house that was on it, then began work on a 20,692-square-foot Italianate mansion. The home is nearly as wide as a football field is long.
The mansion was completed last year and has not yet been assessed, but Collier County building records show that it boasts eight full bathrooms, four half-baths and seven bedrooms. The 1.8-acre lot alone is assessed at $8-million.
The theft occurred late the night of Dec. 28 or in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 29, police say. The Andersons weren't in town, but their daughter was staying there with her husband and children. They went out for dinner that Saturday night and didn't enter the rooms where the paintings were kept until the next morning.
Naples police Detective Randy Durniak would not say how the thieves entered the home. He said the alarm system was off.
The mansion's Gordon Drive entrance is protected by a tall, wrought iron gate. The back is adjacent to a public beach. The only sentinels there are palm trees, and Durniak said evidence suggests that intruders came from the beach.
The home is just three estates down from a public access ramp, and police found footprints in the soft sand behind the house -- tantalizing but useless clues, with lines as vague as Monet's.
* * *
The Naples art scene got its start in 1954 with the founding of the Naples Arts Association, which hosts two national shows each year. The scene exploded in the 1990s, and the city now is home to more than 60 galleries, many of which sell works worth more than $200,000.
In contrast to the wealthy enclaves of Palm Beach, Broward County and Miami to the east, which grew largely with retirees from the Northeast, Naples was settled by Midwesterners -- Eisenhower Republicans from Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The community developed a certain Midwestern sensibility. The culture is more conservative than on the East Coast. Spectacle is not appreciated.
"Not less wealthy, but less ostentatious," said Barbara A. Hill, executive director of The von Liebig Art Center.
"That's the thing that makes Naples so interesting. There are a lot of people who want to maintain a low profile and do."
Gallery owners, museum officials and collectors said they didn't know the Andersons and had no idea the family owned a Renoir and a Monet. But many did know of other stunning and expensive collections inside Naples homes.
Hill mentioned two: a high-end contemporary collection of painting, photography and sculpture, and a collection of painting and sculpture from 19th century Italy.
One expert told of a Picasso hanging over a pedestal sink, another of a whole Picasso collection. Of a Cezanne and a Jackson Pollack. Of entire collections of modern and contemporary works by important artists who aren't yet household names but one day may be.
But Myra Janco Daniels, CEO of the Naples Museum of Art and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, said few if any individual pieces in town rival either of the stolen Anderson paintings. Paintings by those artists are difficult to buy, even if you have the money.
"It's wonderful to know that they were in Naples. Wonderful to know," she said. "The more and the better the art, the better the community, because art is the soul of the community. I hope they find it and get it back in this town. But turn on that alarm system."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire