When delivery driver Richard Ortello bought a bronze sculpture for $15 from a man at a Whalley Avenue gas station in the wee hours of Nov. 29, he knew it was good art. What he did not realize was that the sculpture was one of 10 stolen from the Yale Marsh Botanic Gardens two weeks ago, and the bronze piece, made by Susan Clinard, was valued at $3,500.
The Yale Police Department has a suspect in custody for the Nov. 28 theft of 10 sculptures worth $18,000 from the greenhouse of Marsh Botanical Gardens. Officers have also recovered nine of the 10 missing sculptures.
The YPD could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
Clinard, a New Haven resident and wife of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology professor Thierry Emonet, said she “couldn’t believe it” when the YPD told her most of the sculptures had been recovered.
“I was in a state of disbelief,” Clinard said. “I was definitely pretty sure I’d never see them again, and so were the police.”
Ortello said he was solicited by a stranger at the Shell Gas Station on Whalley Avenue at 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 — several hours after the burglary took place. The man, who Ortello said had been “eyeballing” him from a shiny white van, got out of his vehicle and asked Ortello whether he was interested in purchasing some art.
The man led Ortello to the back of his van, opened the trunk and showed Ortello the sculptures inside. The man told Ortello he was selling them all for $30 apiece.
“I felt like I was saving [the sculptures],” Ortello said. “They were too good to be in this guy’s hands. I had a feeling they could have been stolen.”
Ortello said he asked the stranger whether he was hungry, and the man said he was. The pair went inside a local convenience store, and Ortello gave the man some money for food, he said. Ortello said he smelled liquor on the man’s breath.
When the stranger asked Ortello whether he wanted to purchase one of the sculptures, Ortello said he did not have much cash on him, and the man agreed to lower the price to $15. Ortello paid him $13 in bills and $2 in change and selected a bronze piece he said he found particularly beautiful — Clinard’s “Protecting Her Children During War #2,” which she values at approximately $3,500.
“I felt like the thing was talking to me,” Ortello said.
Ortello said the stranger who sold him the sculpture was black with a mustache and a “wide, Sammy Davis, Jr. nose.” He was wearing dark clothing, Ortello said.
Ortello said he is an amateur antique collector and saw Clinard’s name on the bronze piece but did not recognize it. He said he initially thought the sculpture could have been from the 19th century.
When Ortello saw the piece in the New Haven Register on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 1, he said he realized the piece was stolen and immediately called the YPD to his house. Ortello, who describes himself as detail-oriented, made a sketch of the suspect for the YPD and later chose him from a line-up.
Eric Larson, manager of Marsh Botanical Gardens, said last Wednesday that the burglar broke a window and entered the greenhouse, which had no alarm or security system. Three pieces were damaged in addition to the 10 that were stolen.
Clinard said she was able to see the recovered sculptures Monday. Although most were unharmed, a few of the stolen sculptures had suffered significant damage.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring them all back to life,” Clinard said. “But having some of them [is] better than having none of them.”
Clinard said the sculptures are currently in the possession of the YPD and she does not know when they will be returned to her, which depends on whether the individual in custody pleads guilty to the thefts.
The one sculpture not recovered by YPD is a wooden piece called “Lament.”