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Thief walks out of art gallery with US$20,000 Salvador Dalí etching

New York

FOR an art heist, it was a simple affair. A man ducked into a San Francisco gallery and walked out less than a minute later holding one of its best pieces: a US$20,000 Salvador Dalí etching.

"I was alone at the gallery and turned my back for a minute, and when I looked, it was gone," Rasjad Hopkins, an associate director of the gallery, said on Tuesday. "I never saw the person."

The artwork, a limited-edition hand-coloured 1960s surrealist etching titled La Girafe en Feu, or The Giraffe on Fire, had been sitting on an easel at the gallery, Dennis Rae Fine Art, when it was taken last Sunday.

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Normally, the Spanish artist's work would be tethered to the easel, Mr Hopkins said, but on the day of the theft it was not.

A security camera in the gallery was not turned on at the time.

But surveillance footage of the incident obtained by ABC7 News, which Mr Hopkins said he watched with police, shows a man in a blue cap and a blue Nike shirt enter the gallery, with a second person in pink pants waiting outside.

The man then appears to make his escape with the etching in his right hand.

The piece is one of seven original etchings from a suite of work influenced by Pablo Picasso known as Tauromachie Surréaliste, which translates to "Surrealist bullfighting".

"It could be quickly identified," said Joan Kropf, chief curator at the Dalí Museum in Florida.

The piece was insured, one of 100 works printed on a special kind of paper known as japon, and the gallery had obtained it from a French museum, Mr Hopkins revealed.

While the etching was listed at US$20,000 by Dennis Rae Fine Art, it could sell for as much as US$27,500, said Bruce Hochman, who is the proprietor of a gallery in California, devoted to authentic works by Dalí and who also publishes an annual pricing guide for the artist's work.

But that does not mean that the etching is worth that amount or that the thief would be able to sell it at that price, Mr Hochman added.

What the thief might do with La Girafe en Feu is unclear. Galleries who recognise the work as stolen may report it to authorities. Pawn shops often ask for identification.

The thief could try to start a bidding war on eBay, which could bring the wrong kind of attention.

Or he could simply install it in his living room and admire it.

San Francisco police confirmed in an email that they were investigating the theft of a Dalí etching. It was stolen by an unidentified suspect between 4.40pm. and 5.45pm on Sunday, they said, urging those with information to come forward.

It was not the first time someone has walked out of an art gallery or show having carried out a remarkably nonchalant theft.

At a 2004 show in San Francisco honouring what would have been Dalí's 100th birthday, someone stole a minor work but later mailed it back, Mr Hochman said.

In January this year, a man walked out of a gallery in Moscow with a US$182,000 painting, which was quickly recovered. NYTIMES