MIAMI – Call this one The Case of the Missing Red Reeds.

Red glass reeds, to be precise. Hand-blown sculptures designed by artist Dale Chihuly swiped on a dark and stormy night – cliched but true – from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla.

The theft happened sometime on the night of April 11, while a nasty storm pounded South Florida. The reeds were discovered missing the next morning, during the daily inventory of the thousands of pieces in the Chihuly exhibit.

Coral Gables police wouldn’t comment Saturday, but Fairchild officials say they are hopeful about cracking the case and recovering the seven to 12 stolen pieces, each valued in the “tens of thousands of dollars.”

“We have some DNA evidence and a surveillance tape,” said Bruce Greer, president of the Fairchild Board of Trustees.

He declined to elaborate, but did say the heist was definitely not an inside job. The tape ruled that out.

“The police asked me not to say anything else until we get the art back, and recovery is our focus,” Greer said.

This is the second time reed-seeking thieves have hit the popular art exhibit. The first incident – in December, shortly after Chihuly opened his second run at Fairchild – ended happily with the stolen reeds recovered thanks to an anonymous tipster. There were no arrests; the investigation remains open.

The reeds aren’t easily portable. The tubelike pieces stand six to seven feet tall, said Nannette Zapata, Fairchild’s chief operating officer.

“Who knows what someone would do with them,” she said. “Enjoy them. Sell them. They are valuable pieces of art. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars each, at least. This is a major theft.”

Greer said the Chihuly exhibit will continue as scheduled and visitors won’t notice that pieces are missing.

Chihuly couldn’t be reached for comment, but his publicist Janet Makela sent the following statement by e-mail: “We are aware of the incident and know that Fairchild has the situation well in hand. They are working closely with local authorities to recover the stolen artwork as quickly as possibly.”

The Seattle artist’s six-month installation last winter and spring drew approximately 300,000 visitors. His rare return visit to Fairchild ends in May.

The thefts here aren’t the first time Chihuly’s art has been stolen, according to published reports.

In 2004, “Moccasin Brown Desert Basket Set with Turquoise Blue Lip Wrap,” valued at $50,000, was stolen from the Mockingbird Art Gallery in Bend, Ore. In 2003, a man walked out of an upscale Seattle hotel with a $40,000 glass bowl that was as big as a 36-inch television set.

In fact, according to a report in the Seattle Times, at least 25 Chihuly works are listed in the Art Loss Register, an international database used by police and art dealers to aid in finding stolen art.

Both Zapata and Greer said the Fairchild thieves twice beat a “sophisticated” surveillance system that includes cameras and 24-hour guards. The thefts hurt the Garden deeply, they said.

“It’s quite hurtful to do anything like this to a charity,” said Greer. “That someone would do this to a place that is a world-class institution and not want to protect a cultural treasure is something that I don’t understand.”

Zapata encouraged people who know something about the theft to call the police or Fairchild with tips.

“When stuff like this takes place it doesn’t make Miami seem like a wonderful place to display art,” Zapata said. “It really hurts more than people think.”



(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.

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