The story of how La Muse Endormie was stolen.
March 15th, 2018. Transcription by Candida Joffer, art critique and writer at the Quixote Museum Forum.
Metal theft in Britain has primarily occurred at railways and abandoned power stations. However, the biggest case of metal theft in the art world is that of the sculpture, La Muse Endormie (1909–1910), by the Romanian artist, Constantin Brancusi. This event has had ramifications for Christie’s auction house who sold the piece for 57 million dollars in 2017. Mr Gary Kinon, an important collector, last owner of La Muse Endormie and Quixote Museum's director, has insisted to give his testimony at the Quixote Museum's Forum. Art historian Dr Karina Paarman, has guided Mr Kinon through the Skype conversation at our Quixote Museum’s Forum last week. Here are the updates he has given us:
Karina Paarman: Hi Gary. Thank you for accepting to share your story with us today. We are sorry you couldn’t be here in person but luckily, thanks to technology, you are live now. So welcome to the Quixote Museum’s forum.
Gary Kinon: Thank you for the warm welcome. Well, I think art is something so personal that I’d like to start by sharing how I felt… The moment the object was stripped away from me I wanted to give the security company a slap. Their system had been almost as expensive as the bloody head [La Muse Endormie], for god’s sake. I should have programmed the security system myself, after all that’s what I do… Anyway, after purchasing the head I decided to go to the conservation department at Christie’s. It seemed extremely traditional but they said they were going to give me a very official certificate through their insurance company. To me this wasn’t enough, I wanted more security. The auction house spoke to me about their relation with Fortecho, a particular company focused on museum-grade security systems. I mean they work with leading art institutions in London and the world, so I expected them to know what they were doing.
Karina Paarman: Hmmm yes, I can imagine it being a painful process especially if you placed your trust in the company. Thank you for sharing that with us. If I understood right we know that the head was stolen by your boss at the time, is that right?
Gary Kinon: Yes, that is correct Karina, and I have to say I never imagined Leonor acting this way. I always looked up to him. It’s like if another persona had taken over and I was speaking to a completely different person, you know what I mean? Although, now that I think about it, I once came across a criminal record amongst his data and realized it belonged to him. Anyway, all of this is now public but at that stage it was certainly hidden and no one suspected anything.
Karina Paarman: What were the charges then if I may ask?
Gary Kinon: The charges actually pointed at metal theft. He was helping an old man to steal metal, mostly plaques from graves, the thing was that both of these guys are millionaires… What can I say? He makes way more money that I do and I earn a very decent amount….
Karina Paarman: I think I might have heard something about that in the news years ago, perhaps this is not the same man but I do know that professional gangs have attempted to break in different locations around London and in fact in the last month more than 30 times per week. Bronze memorial plaques stolen from cemeteries are a common one, and in fact it was a 72-year-old man whom I heard they had found guilty of trying to sell stolen cemetery metal plaques to merchants. I don’t know if this guy is the same that had partnered with your ex-boss, Mr Leonor Blanvatik, but he had cut the names from the inscriptions commemorating the lives of the deceased into many pieces. The merchant was able to identify the problem early on and informed the authorities straight away.
Gary Kinon: I didn’t expect you’d be aware of all these cases…Yes, after the incident I started to look more into it as well. Apparently metal thieves pose themselves as BT engineers. They make sure to wearing high-visibility jackets and spend time forging job sheets and passes to buy themselves access to hundreds of metres of copper cable, which they can then steal.
Karina Paarman: So how was it that Mr Leonor Blanvatik took the artwork? Did he have access to your home? Is that where it was? How did it happen?
Gary Kinon: Yeah hmmm not exactly… Yes, it was years ago at my basement actually where I kept a substantial art collection but still it was not as large as it is now. I don’t have anything there anymore and I shift the location for my personal collection every few months, let’s say it tours… Now that we have opened the Quixote Museum most of it is there and the other owners have allowed me to store or display a substantial part of my collection there too. This time it is under a rather strong security system that I’ve not programmed but have planned myself. We are the first ones in Europe to use this. It is amusing to recall that most of what is at this museum has been stolen from somewhere at some point. Some pieces that had been damaged or modified from their original states by thieves had in fact gone to auction again and had even sold for a much higher price than they had sold for before. I guess some people might find something thrilling there being a theft story behind the object. I imagine it being that they feel a little bit on edge when they think of what has happened to that thing. Anyway, the concept of the museum was quite unusual since the beginning starting with the fact that all investors and owners did not come from an art or museum background. Sure, many owned iconic art pieces but to them this was more about an investment than trying to impersonate a recognized collector role.
Karina Paarman: So how did he take it? How was the object stolen by Mr Blanvatik?
Gary Kinon: Oh yes, well I took the head with me that day to the office…
Karina Paarman: What!? In a vault or something?
Gary Kinon: No, I took it in a gym backpack actually…
Karina Paarman: Oh god, you non-art-world people…
Gary Kinon: (Gary laughs) It was not about that, I made sure that the micro-tracker that has been installed inside the artwork was working. Using that, I knew it would be easy to get it back from wherever Leonor placed it. He isn’t usually very careful as we all know by now…
Karina Paarman: Okay, let me get this straight, you took a 56-million dollar sculpture…
Gary Kinon: 57 actually…
Karina Paarman: Sorry, 57-million dollar object in a gym bag, with crap security, to give it to your boss? How is this possible? [Karina asks in despair.]
Gary Kinon: When Leonor found out I was the bidder he seemed quite obsessed with the idea that I possessed this piece. I was never able to find out if he was one of the other anonymous bidders on the telephone. I did have quite an intense time trying to beat another offer from one specific anonymous bidder. Anyway, Leonor called me to his office and just kept on smiling and mentioning how much joy this piece brought him whilst threatening to accuse me of fraud if I didn’t give the artwork to him the next day. He showed me a huge range of emotions in this one conversation. The world knows what an extremely good coder he is, I say this because at that time he had in his hands a software with which he could easily re-invent my whole identity without me being able to prove ever again (or at least until I found how this code worked) that I was Gary Kinon. Even if I tried to come up with a new identity he would have kept changing it in every system possible, leaving me as a nobody for the rest of my life. I decided to give the artwork to him the next day at his office, hoping to later think of a strategy for how to get it back. Also, it was a chance to test the security system… So I gave it to him and I started to work on my strategy.
Five days later, the tracker (which only by then had detected that the object was moved from its original location) indicated that the piece was held in a particular location in South East London, and in what it seemed to be a scrap yard. I sent my private detective Shila Rajmi to see what was going on. She found the tracker on the ground with the coordinates I gave her, but found no traces of the head. She approached the person who runs the yard and showed him a photograph of the piece. She told me the man burst out in laughter. He couldn’t believe this was a real story apparently, he kept thinking she was acting out a scene from a film or something…Actually, I think there are some recordings about this in the story’s archive. The recording involves Shila talking to Sam Schmidt, the person who runs the scrap yard.
Karina Paarman: Yes indeed, we have some voice recordings that you gave to the museum for the archive. Should we play these?
Gary Kinon: Go for it. [Gary starts chuckling.]
[Karina Paarman presses play to voice recording of Sam Schmidt by Detective Shila Rajmi]
Karina Paarman: Oh Lord, Shila must have been patient. So the man just couldn’t believe it. But it looks like quite a precious object - isn’t this common sense?
Gary Kinon: [laughing] Karina, I think you are one of the few who works at the Quixote Museum that is too caught up with the art world. Sam had a lot to laugh about, I mean the fact that the object looks quite pretty doesn’t necessarily mean this would stop him from getting his hands on the metal. The drive to steal and sell copper and bronze has been voracious after China’s copper scrap import regulation changed last year.
Also, Sam was not the only person who didn’t realise the piece’s value. We also have Luisa Frateli who was in fact the one who stole it from Leonor. The girl just wanted to get an anniversary gift for her boyfriend or something….
Karina Paarman: So she gave the object to her boyfriend as an anniversary present? I wouldn’t complain if I were him!
Gary Kinon: No! [Gary laughs.] She sold it to get the actual present but perhaps the boyfriend would have actually appreciated the piece considering he works with metal at a small jewelry store. She was a waiter at the Princess Louise pub near the office. It must have been easy to nick it from Leonor if he drank as much as he usually does.
Karina Paarman: Yes, we’ve got a recording under the name of Luisa too.
[Karina presses play to voice recording of Detective Bruno Bong interrogating Luisa Frateli]
(Found piece no 11. Inscribed: ‘si se…C. Valsuali….pierde’. Photograph contributed by the Quixote Museum’s Conservation Department.)
Karina Paarman: It has been quite a trajectory that the artwork has gone through, perhaps we could make an addition to its provenance record?
[Karina says sarcastically and whilst laughing.]
Gary Kinon: Oh of course, I thought we already had done that, I’m not sure if in this case the addition to its record will increase or decrease the object’s value. Haven’t you had a look at the objects?
Karina Paarman: The object, you mean? The last time I checked the archive that the Quixote Museum’s curators and conservation team were building to portray the story, the head was not there yet. There was Shila’s material and many red dots that as you know, indicate that objects were removed for study.
Gary Kinon: I do mean objects. The thing is in pieces now. That’s why I have no clue how much each of those will cost if they were offered as separate lots in auction…
Karina Paarman: What!? How many pieces? Does our conservation team have each of them? Are they working on reconstructing La Muse Endormie? I can’t imagine what would have gone through Mr Ulmann’s mind after discovering that an artwork that had remained in his family for more than 50 years has now been crushed into pieces.
Gary Kinon: It was actually chopped into pieces not crushed…Whether to laugh or cry? I think that’s what you say in these cases, or something like that… Anyway, the project has been approved and if it makes you feel better we have brought a conservation expert from Japan to reconstruct what’s left from the artwork using the found pieces.
Karina Paarman: Are you trying to tell me there are still lost pieces out there?
Gary Kinon: Well yes, we have certain theories. One involves that some could be hidden metres underground after Sam found how much the pieces were worth, although this wouldn’t make sense because not a single auction would be interested in buying these if they don’t come from the museum. So, another theory is that considering that the scrap yard is by to the Thames River, perhaps during one of the occasions when the yard flooded, the pieces had gone away with the tide.
Karina Paarman: So who chopped it up? [Karina asks with a shaking voice.]
Gary Kinon: Sam did, I told you. A pretty object was not going to stop him from getting his hands on some bronze. Are you okay? You seem a little concerned. Were you just working here because you thought you’d be in contact with the actual Brancusi head?
Karina Paarman: No, no, I’m fine. I think we are done for today. Thank you, Gary, for sharing the story and we look forward to seeing you around the museum next week.
Gary Kinon: Thank you, Karina. We’ll continue this conversation next week.