Man swipes Dali painting from art gallery

A thief who swiped a Salvador Dali painting off the wall of a New York art gallery may have escaped, but experts say the painting will likely be recovered when it comes back onto the art market.

Police are searching for a slim man with a receding hairline who walked into a Madison Avenue art gallery on Tuesday posing as a customer and walked out with the $150,000 Dali watercolor and ink painting in a large black shopping bag.

The man asked a security guard if he could take a photo, then removed the painting as soon as the guard stepped away, the New York Daily News reported. Surveillance cameras captured the man, who was wearing a black-and-white checked shirt, on his way out the door.

The 1949 painting, called "Cartel des Don Juan Tenorio," was part of the Venus Over Manhattan art gallery's very first exhibition. The gallery, which opened to the public in May, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The vast majority of high-end paintings such as this one are eventually recovered because they are such rare works of art and easily tracked, said Robert Wittman, an art-security consultant and former investigator for the FBI's national art crime team.

"Generally speaking, art thieves are fairly good criminals, but they're terrible businessmen," he said. "And the true art is not the stealing, it's the selling."

While the gallery's security measures are unclear, Wittman said most galleries and museums have electronic surveillance, guards on duty and specific protocols in place to prevent such thefts. When one of these measures breaks down, theft is more likely to occur.

"At some point, when that person was given access to the painting, the guard was not looking," Wittman said. "That would be against any kind of protocol."

The gallery's inaugural exhibit has several dozen works of art from the 19th century to the present on display.

Dali painted the work when he was creating the backdrop and set designs for a theater production in Madrid, said William Jeffett, curator at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"It seems to be a design for the poster that they used to promote the theatrical production," Jeffett said.

Last year, a wine steward went on a bicoastal binge of plucking pricey art off gallery walls in California and New York. Mark Lugo, 31, pleaded guilty to taking a $350,000 drawing by Cubist painter Fernand Leger from a lobby gallery at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel.

He also admitted to snatching a $275,000 Picasso drawing called "Tete de Femme" ("Head of a Woman") from the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco.

Investigators found a $430,000 collection of stolen art — including the Leger, a 1917 piece called "Composition with Mechanical Elements" — hanging in Lugo's apartment in Hoboken, N.J.

"Galleries are usually more open or vulnerable to theft," Wittman said. "Because museums are built to keep the art in. Galleries are built to put the art out."