Dozens of pieces of art, including three lifted from Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, were recovered from a house near the Yale New Haven Hospital after the man apprehended for stealing multiple works identified their location.
At a press conference at the New Haven Police Department headquarters Monday, the 39 recovered pieces were put on display with the hope that the public would help identify the owners. Three were identified as being stolen from the Slifka Center and five from the New Haven Public Library. The other 31 pieces remain unidentified.
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NHPD Assistant Chief of Police Peter Reichard said the paintings were recovered at the residence of 47-year-old drug dealer Bronislaw Nestir, along with heroin, cash money, several firearms, 16 packets of marijuana.
The case remains under investigation, and the Yale Police Department is working with NHPD to identify the individuals responsible for all the thefts, YPD spokesman Lt. Steven Woznyk said.
Police were notified of the theft March 5, Reichard said, and they used the library’s security camera to identify the suspect, whose name has not yet been released. He was seen on camera concealing an item under his jacket. When the suspect returned later to the scene of the crime, library personnel recognized him and alerted the authorities. Once apprehended, the suspect admitted to stealing from the library.
After the works were not found in the suspect’s home, the suspect revealed that he had given them to Nestir.
“[The suspect] told us he was trading the paintings for narcotics,” Reichard said.
Among the works recovered were two paintings by Yale computer science professor David Gelernter, “Sh’ma” and “Nariah,” which were sold together for $40,000, and a piece by his son, Daniel Gelernter ’10, “Drawing III.”
“An artist shovels his life into a painting,” said Daniel Gelernter, recounting his reaction to the theft. “To have a painting stolen, not just to lose possession but to lose track of its existence, feels more like losing an acquaintance than an object.”
The three art pieces were stolen on the evenings of March 3 and 4 from the Slifka Center, where they were on exhibition.
A visiting lecturer this semester teaching a course called “Art Crime,” Noah Charney said the fact that these stolen works were not big ticket items is notable because most art thefts are of pieces of relatively little monetary value.
“There are hundreds and thousands of art crimes per year,” Charney said. “It’s good to highlight the extent of the problem and not focus on the really big headline cases.”
He said he was not surprised to learn that the artwork had been traded for drugs because he said it is very difficult to sell art for cash.
“It is too dangerous and difficult to get cash for the art that they’ve stolen,” Charney said. “The safer solution in terms of minimizing arrests is to use stolen art for barter or as collateral with other criminals.”
NHPD Detective Scott Branfuhr said the thief did not admit to other any other thefts, adding that the thief said he stole only while intoxicated, heroin being his drug of choice.
“We’re not talking about hardened criminals,” Branfuhr said. “They were both very cooperative.”
Even though these arrested men did not identify as a part of larger organized crime ring, Charney said their actions make them a part of the broader, international drug trafficking infrastructure.
Police are currently soliciting help from the public to identify the recovered pieces of artwork.