Brooklyn Vigilantes Nab Art Thief by Taco Truck

Picasso (or T.S. Eliot, one of those guys) famously said that good artists imitate and great artists steal. Perhaps the sticky-fingered thief at the opening of “Rules of Engagement,” a group show at Allan Nederpelt Gallery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took that slogan to heart when he suddenly felt compelled to lift a $1,200 drawing, by Leo Koenig artist Ridley Howard — right off the wall, in front of everybody. The would-be art criminal then carried the framed piece into a car waiting on slush-covered Freeman Street, near a taco truck that was doing a brisk business during the opening.

The drawing itself — an untitled, 2009 study for a painting— was positioned on a wall quite close to the exit of the 5,000 square foot space. “It was near the end of the opening; the beer was running out,” says David Coggins, who curated the group show. “All of a sudden I hear Martin Nederpelt, who owns the building and runs the space, yell ‘Stop!’ He sprints toward the front — he can move very well for a 50-year old. All I could think was that somebody stole a work. But then I thought ‘nobody would do that.’ It’s basically the worst thing that can happen at an opening.”

“I was standing outside with my taco,” says Chuck Webster, a painter represented by ZieherSmith Gallery, who saw the art thief’s failed getaway. “A bunch of people ran out of the gallery, and there was shouting and a real sense of urgency. They surrounded the car — at first I thought someone was trying to steal it. Someone got out of the car after a few minutes and was immediately grabbed and pushed up against the fence. It was quite surreal; I’ve been watching “The Wire” on DVD, and I felt like I was in Baltimore watching a bust.”

Coggins has a slightly different recollection of the order of events outside the gallery. “The guy rolled down his window and handed the piece through the window to Ridley [Howard],” he says. “Somebody pulled him out of the car and there were some glancing blows thrown. He was pretty out of it. Then he ran down the street; cops picked him up and I heard that he spent the night in jail. He was brought to the opening by somebody else — I think he just did it on a drunk dare. He isn’t part of any art theft conspiracy.”

While the piece was restored to the wall, it seems that the attempted robbery weighed heavy on gallerygoers. “It was quite disturbing to see theft, violence, and that kind of intensity at an art exhibition, especially with so many friends there,” says Webster. “I think of those places as the sacred result of a lot of hard work. It was a kind of violation.”

“It’s a strange thing, because you want people to respond to the work,” Coggins says. “But it was an oddly visceral experience. This is a group exhibition, not a speed metal concert.”

“Rules of Engagement” remains on view at Allan Nederpelt Gallery, 60 Freeman Street in Brooklyn, on Saturdays and Sundays, 1-6 p.m., through Feb 13, and also by appointment. Please leave the art on the walls unless you have purchased it.