Christopher Marinello has made a career out of tracking down priceless stolen art and artifacts.
As the CEO of Art Recovery International, if it’s famous and it’s missing, Marinello is probably on the case. His track record of helping items find their way back to their rightful owners sounds like something out of a “Most Interesting Man in the World” pageant.
An Henri Matisse painting, one of the many pieces of Nazi-looted artwork he has helped recover. An English ceremonial sword. An astrolabe from the 16th century. A bunch of old guns.
Currently on the docket: the 1964 Aston Martin that was used in the James Bond film Goldfinger, complete with Q’s suite of gadgets. It disappeared from an airport hangar in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1997. (Last month, Marinello received a tip saying the stolen car was being held at a specific location in the Middle East—no word on if it’s actually the one just yet.)
Thieves take on an extreme amount of risk to pilfer these sorts of pieces, with no guarantee that they’ll be able to unload them easily. You can’t really drive that Aston Martin to the local swap meet and slap a “For Sale” sign on it now, can you?
“They’ve got to have rocks in their heads to call this some sort of a profession,” Marinello says.
The money is the main enticement, sure, but people steal all sorts of strange things for all sorts of reasons. Here are some of the strangest, most exotic thefts ever reported, along with the motivations of the culprits and the fates of the objects.
A Feather Touch
It wasn’t enough for Edwin Rist to be an orchestral flute prodigy. No, in 2009, the 20-year-old American also set about making himself a world-renowned feather thief.
Rist broke into the Museum of Natural History in Tring, England, and stole nearly 300 preserved skins from tropical birds. His plan was to sell the birds’ exotic plumage to fellow aficionados, especially among his fellow fly-tiers who were always on the lookout for fancy feathers to use on the lures they dangle in front of fish. Yes, Rist was an avid fly fisherman as well.
It didn’t work out so well for Rist. A little more than a year after the heist, investigators pinned him down as a suspect and found plastic bags containing thousands of feathers and cardboard boxes with what remained of the skins in his apartment.
He was ordered to pay about $160,000 in restitution. Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of the 2018 book The Feather Thief about Rist and his scheme, estimates there still could be more than 100 skins unaccounted for.
Marinello says that if you’re a museum curator or private collector of rare, exotic items—say, tropical bird skins—it’s a good idea to keep a detailed list of your inventory handy.
“Keeping your documentation, keeping your receipts, having digital images of the object, have your items insured, keep your insurance records, make sure you update your insurance from time to time,” Marinello says. “I recommend that people who have collections get security checks of their premises. Museums know how to do this fairly regularly, but collectors don’t.”
Hole in None
Thieves scouring for scrap metal sources seem to keep a special eye out for manhole covers.
More than a ton’s worth of sewer covers and grates were stolen in the Los Angeles area in 1990, with the aim of selling off the material for scrap metal. Police ended up nabbing the culprits during a stakeout when they followed a lead to a junkyard and found the missing metal in the flatbed of a Toyota pickup truck. Followers of the case had theorized that the thieves were looking for unique decorations for their backyards or that they were obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Nope. They were just planning to sell it all for about $75 total.
Rome police are on the lookout for someone who is stealing manhole covers & sewer grates possibly selling for scrap. pic.twitter.com/hkFqtv2W3y
— earl davis (@edavisearl) September 11, 2014
Manhole cover thefts seem to pop up quite frequently in the world of “ain’t it weird” news, from a spate of 1,500 going missing in India in 2008—with hopes of selling the iron ore to China for use in building its venues for the Beijing Summer Olympics—to one particularly pesky missing cover in the English village of Broadbridge Heath in 2011. Pesky for at least one woman, that is, who fell 20 feet into the sewers by stepping into the uncovered abyss.
There’s got to be an easier way to procure scrap metal, right?
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Maybe not on that easy scrap metal thing.
Thieves going for a higher level of difficulty made off with an entire 50-foot bridge from North Beaver Township, Pennsylvania, in 2011. Local officials said that the bridge, which weighed 40 tons, was probably cut into pieces by blowtorches and hauled away. The bridge had been standing since the early 1900s on a sparsely used access road, spanning a small stream.
It never made its way back to the water.
Perhaps the thieves in Pennsylvania took their inspiration from a team of Russian bandits, who made off with a 200-ton bridge in 2008.
And then there’s the case of the metal thief who didn’t really know what he had on his hands.
In 2005, a 3,000-pound copper bell and its accompanying hand-carved wooden frame—checking in at 12 feet tall, combined—went missing from a Buddhist temple in Tacoma, Washington. The theft had to have been premeditated because, well, how do you abscond with a bell that weighs more than a ton without putting at least a little thought into it?
The steps after were less well-planned. A man came across the bell when he bought a storage unit in an auction in nearby Puyallup the next year. He was approached by another man, Robert L. Hunter, who said all the stuff in the unit belonged to him and offered to buy it back for more than $500.
The man declined, returned the bell to the temple, then told a state Fish and Wildlife officer about the interaction. Police arrested Hunter in 2008 and found in his possession, deep breath now: “nine guns, some of them stolen, as well as six stolen cars, two stolen tow trucks, a stolen tractor, two stolen flatbed trucks, new car engines in wooden crates, some eagle talons, an eagle’s head,” and more, according to the Associated Press.
He’d been busy stealing. Not so much getting rid of the things he’d stolen.
“The more expensive or important an object is, the harder it is to sell,” Marinello says. “Criminals who steal objects don’t necessarily have a plan B. They think they’re going to quickly sell something, and they realize the market for stolen objects is pretty small. Criminals will take whatever they can get for something and, when they realize there is a limited number of buyers, the objects could trade on the black market for a fraction of their true value—maybe 10 or 15 percent.”
Godzilla. Literally Godzilla.
A 130-pound rubber model of him, anyway.
It went missing from the Toho special effects studio in Tokyo, Japan, in 1992, then was found abandoned a week later in a bamboo patch. The studio estimated that the model cost about $37,000, but how are you going to sell a 13-foot-tall Godzilla? And where are you going to keep something like that until you do find a buyer?
Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, says some of the clients he helps feel an irresistible pull toward certain objects, even if they don’t think they’ll have any use for them.
Maybe the enticement of making off with their own piece of movie history was just too much for the Godzilla thieves to ignore.
“Somebody sees something that really lures them in on some level,” Shulman says. “When somebody can get really locked on to wanting something, for whatever reason, you may not even know what you’re going to do with it, you just want to possess it: ‘This is too cool, this thing. I don’t know if it’s worth anything or I’ll even use it, but I just have to have it.’”
Dirk the Penguin
Sometimes, that cool thing is a living one, too.
In 2012, two Welsh tourists stole a 7-year-old fairy penguin named Dirk from a Sea World in Australia. The pair had had a few…um…beverages and broke into the theme park at night, swimming with dolphins and setting off a fire extinguisher in the shark exhibit before turning their attentions to Dirk, according to the BBC.
They woke up the next morning with Dirk in their room, then released him into a canal, where Dirk was soon found and returned to Sea World. The two confessed to the crime and were each fined around $1,000.
The first president of the United States got his pocket picked nearly 200 years after he left us. George Washington’s wallet went missing from the Old Barracks Museum in New Jersey in 1992, only to be returned three weeks later by a lawyer acting on behalf of an anonymous client, who wanted to make it known that he was not the one who took the wallet.
The $1.66 in colonial money that the wallet held never rematerialized. It’s a pity. That probably could have bought a mean set of pewter dice.
Marinello often works with third parties who have somehow come into possession of stolen pieces in order to return them to their rightful owners. He keeps the process of reacquisition discreet, with details confidential.
He originally went to art school to create art, but soon realized he was no Picasso. So he decided to go to law school and be the one responsible for recovering a missing Picasso or two.
“As an attorney, my responsibility and specialty is to sort all of this out and either try to get the object back to the original theft victim or the museum where it was stolen from, or to resolve the dispute that has arisen,” Marinello says. “Paintings, coins, bars of gold, stamps, classic antique vehicles, sculptures, antiquities, just about anything that is unique.”
“I’ve recovered some pretty ugly sculptures and truly horrid paintings. I recall a particularly ugly monkey painting that seemed to have a lot of interest. We got it back.”
The Psychology of Stealing
While some may steal for monetary gains or for the thrill of it, the majority of Shulman’s clients do so for a psychological need.
Kleptomaniacs, Shulman says, steal to soothe their anxiety in public settings. Others treat taking things as a compulsion to elevate their mood, like reaching for your coworker’s last cookie while they’re in a meeting (sorry, Jim).
That’s where you run across stories such as someone getting busted for taking a 99-cent bag of candy after spending $750 at a store. Or like Winona Ryder taking nearly $5,000 in clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001 when she could clearly afford them.
Shulman knows this feeling well. He estimates he took about 1,000 small-ticket items—a candy bar here, a comic book or cassette tape there—over about a decade in his late teens and early 20s when his personal life was especially stressful. That’s why he’s committed to helping people with similar problems understand the causes and come up with solutions.
“For some reason, for a certain set of people, stealing becomes addictive. It lights up the brain in a certain way,” Shulman says. “It can be relatively short-lasting. Some people describe it as a high or euphoria, but other people say it numbs them out when they’re scattered and overwhelmed and anxious. It levels them off. Some people feel like there’s a lot of stress and tension building up in their lives and, when they take something, it kind of gives them a sense of relief or calmness.”
“Human behavior is quite curious and complex. All kinds of people, even those we would never think would do a certain kind of behavior, can be capable of doing all kinds of weird things.”