A former Rikers Island deputy warden was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison after admitting that he, a former assistant deputy warden, and two former guards stole a rare Salvador Dali painting valued at $250,000 from its display case at Rikers Island jail in New York City.
In 1965, Dali was visiting New York and scheduled to visit Rikers Island to give prisoners an art lesson and gain publicity for the Art in Prison program. Dali fell ill and was unable to visit the prison. To ameliorate the prisoners' disappointment, Dali, himself a former prisoner, spent about two hours creating a 4-foot by 5-foot watercolor and charcoal painting, a crucifixion. Along with the painting came a message: "You are artists. Don't think of your life as finished for you. With art, you have always to feel flee." (sic) (Dali was a notoriously bad speller.)
The painting was signed, "For the dinning of the Prisoners Rikers Island" and for 16 years it hung in the prisoners' dining hall. In 1980, an expert authenticated and appraised the painting. Suddenly, the prison administration began to fear that the prisoners might damage the painting and it was moved to a plexiglass case in the lobby of the prison. The painting's last appraisal in 1985 put its value at $175,000. However, since Dali died in 1989, all of his works have risen steeply in value.
As it turns out, prisoners were not a danger to the painting, prison officials were. On March 1, 2003, four prison officials staged a fire drill in a remote part of the prison and used the distraction to steal the painting and replace it with a poor copy. In September, 2003, Mitchell Hochhauser, 40, former deputy warden, admitted his part in the theft, alleging that Benny Nuzzo, former assistant deputy warden, masterminded the plot to initiate the fire drill as a diversion, replace the regular lobby guards with accomplice guards Timothy Pina and Greg Sokol, and trade the Dali for a copy. Sokol is also cooperating with authorities.
The hitch in the plan was that copy didn't look like the original. It was brighter and newer than the faded original, was missing the original's golden frame, and was shoddily stapled to the wall. An off-duty guard walking through the lobby noticed the theft the next morning. The NYPD investigation into the theft immediately focused on officials who had access to the key to the plexiglass box that protected the painting.
According to Hochhauser, Nuzzo, who was supposed to store the painting in the attic of his mother's house, became nervous as the investigation narrowed and told the others that he had destroyed the painting. At his sentencing, Hochhauser said, "I just want to apologize to my wife and children, my family, the court and thank the New York City Department of Corrections for hiring me and supporting me." No apology was given to the prisoners, whose artwork he stole, or the people of New York, who have been deprived of an irreplaceable treasure.
Hochhauser was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison. Pina and Sokol face up to 15 years in prison, if convicted. New York officials are still hoping to recover the painting; they ask anyone with information on it to call (212)266-1900.
On June 4, 2004, Nuzzo was acquitted by a Bronx jury of the theft. Hochhauser testified against Nuzzo. Nuzzo's lawyer said the acquittal "sends a message about the community's distaste for people who try to get out of crimes by merely pointing to someone else."
Sources: nynewsday.com, Associated Press, nydailynews.com, prisontalk.com, New York Times
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