Detectives seek thieves who swiped Rembrandt

A Rembrandt sketch swiped from the lobby of a seaside hotel and found in a San Fernando Valley church is locked away as investigators worked to find the thieves who snatched the 350-year-old artwork.

Investigators had several leads, were reviewing hotel surveillance video and were working on a sketch of the suspects, said Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

The 11-by-6-inch pen-and-ink drawing worth $250,000 was found in an unlocked public area of an Encino church Monday evening after a caller recognized it from news accounts of its weekend theft, said Whitmore. It was snatched from an easel Saturday during a private art display inside a high-end hotel lobby.

The drawing was verified as being the stolen piece early Tuesday, he said.

However, experts will be asked to authenticate the work as a Rembrandt, and until then it will remain in an evidence locker, Whitmore said.

The frame holding it will be fingerprinted and investigators will try to determine whether the church has any surveillance video, detective Clarence Williams said Tuesday as he held up the recovered artwork in a dark-wood frame at a Marina del Rey news conference.

When the Rembrandt was stolen over the weekend in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, a curator had been momentarily distracted by someone who seemed interested in buying another piece.

The thieves apparently tore open brown paper covering the back of the frame, intending to remove the mounted sketch, but then got cold feet.

"They realized that ... it's going to be very hard to sell" because of the publicity and might not have had the knowhow and connections to sell the sketch, Williams said.

"It doesn't appear to be damaged or touched."

It was abandoned, "we believe, because there was so much publicity," Whitmore said. "How do you sell it? What do you do with it?"

It was not immediately clear whether the thieves were professionals or amateur opportunists.

"I honestly can't tell you if it was well thought-out, at this time," Williams said.

The artwork, in its original mounting, was found in an unlocked church building about 20 miles from where it vanished, Williams said. The detective declined to name the church or to say whether the sketch was found in the sanctuary.

"Right now it looks like it was dumped off," Williams said.

At St. Nicholas' Episcopal Church, an Anglican parish in Encino, the Rev. Michael Cooper confirmed the sketch was found there but he declined to release any details.

The man who tipped off authorities is not a suspect and is cooperating with investigators.

The sketch, called "The Judgment," was completed around 1655 and is signed on the back by Rembrandt von Rijn. It was drawn with a quill pen and depicts what appears to be a court scene with a man prostrating himself before a judge.

The drawing was part of an exhibit at the hotel sponsored by the Linearis Institute based in the San Francisco Bay area community of Hercules.

Calls to the institute for comment were not immediately returned Tuesday.