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Latest Laguna art gallery theft prompts calls for vigilance

January 12, 2012 |  2:06 pm

Laguna Beach police are asking art galleries to keep a closer watch in light of a wave of recent art thefts.

Kush Gallery was the latest victim. A $7,500 Vladimir Kush painting was stolen Jan. 5, right before Art Walk started.

In the fall, the Townley Gallery and Village Gallery reported thefts of a $2,000 glass sculpture and a $3,295 sculpture, respectively.

Gallery cameras caught the suspects on tape, and the owners thought the two thefts may be connected, but police said they have no reason to believe it was the same person.

484 North Gallery also reported the theft of a $1,950 copper sculpture in April.

Police have no suspects in custody, Laguna Beach Sgt. Louise Callus said.

Townley Gallery owner Shane Townley told the Coastline Pilot in the fall that he believes the suspect mistook the glass sculpture for bronze.

He said he's been told that metal sculptures are stolen to be melted down and sold.

As for other stolen artwork — such as Kush's recently stolen traceable, numbered painting — Callus said she thinks certain pieces are targeted.

"I'm not sure if it's an organized crime type of thing," she said, but she believes the suspects may be hired to steal specific pieces, especially since many paintings can be tracked.

Callus noted that the suspects often cased the galleries prior to the robbery. In an effort to disguise themselves from surveillance cameras, the male suspects wore hats and checked out the store before returning and completing the theft in a matter of seconds.

Village Gallery owner Pamela Brown told the Coastline Pilot in November that her surveillance footage caught the suspect staking out the gallery a couple of times, and he was methodical about the removal of the piece, coming in once to place it on the ground and then coming in a second time to put it in a bag and take it.

While many Laguna galleries have shuttered and those surviving have admitted the climate is tough for the business, Callus pointed out this means that most galleries are manned by potentially only one employee.

She urged gallery workers to stay as close to the front of the store as possible and be wary of patrons who try to lure them to the back, which might just be to distract the employee.

She also cautioned against reliance on surveillance cameras.

"People are really what stops crime," she said. "If you get a weird feeling about someone, keep an eye on him and give us a call."

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--Joanna Clay, Times Community News

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