US charges nine in art, sports memorabilia theft conspiracy

An Andy Warhol silkscreen, Jackson Pollock painting and World Series rings awarded to baseball legend Yogi Berra — those were just a few of the high-value items US prosecutors charged nine people Thursday with stealing.

In a plot worthy of a Hollywood film, the suspects allegedly broke into multiple museums and institutions in several US states over 20 years to pilfer objects totalling millions of dollars.

The accused then melted some of the items down into metal discs and bars before selling the pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars, significantly less than their original value, federal prosecutors said in a statement.

The thefts took place in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota and Rhode Island, the US Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Gerard Karam, said in a statement.

Eight men and one woman, all in their 40s and 50s, allegedly conspired to steal Warhol’s “La Grande Passion” and Pollock’s “Springs Winter” from the Everhart Museum, in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 2005.

According to US media reports at the time, thieves shattered a glass door in the building in the middle of the night before taking off with the two artworks.

Pollock’s 1949 oil-on-canvas was estimated to be worth around $11 million while Warhol’s 40 inch by 40 inch work, made in 1984, was then worth about $15,000, the reports said.

The suspects are also accused of stealing nine World Series rings, seven other championship rings, and two most valuable player (MVP) plaques awarded to Berra, considered one of the greatest catchers in baseball history.

The items were stolen in 2014 from the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in New Jersey, attorney Karam said.

Other objects cited by the prosecutor included six championship belts awarded to late American boxers Carmen Basilio and Tony Zale which were stolen in 2015 from the International Boxing Hall of Fame in New York state.

– Fugitive –
An MVP Trophy awarded to ex-baseball player Roger Maris, the US Amateur Trophy won by golf great Ben Hogan, and the 1903 Belmont Stakes Trophy in horse racing form part of the prosecution’s case as well.

The indictment alleges that one of the suspects burnt the painting “Upper Hudson” by late American landscape artist Jasper Cropsey, valued at approximately $500,000.

He allegedly did so to avoid the recovery of the painting by investigators for use as evidence against the members of the conspiracy.

Authorities said some of the items had been returned to their owners but did not specify which objects.

“The whereabouts of many of the other paintings and stolen objects are currently unknown,” the attorney’s office said in its statement.

The suspects are also accused of stealing an antique shotgun, gold nuggets, a Tiffany lamp, and other jewelery.

The indictment alleges that after stealing the items the suspects took them to one of the suspect’s home in Pennsylvania where the melting took place. The pieces were then sold to other individuals in New York City.

The suspects were charged with conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork, concealment or disposal of objects of cultural heritage, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

The most serious offenses carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison.

Karam said eight of the nine defendants had surrendered, with one remaining a fugitive.

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© Agence France-Presse