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Local & State News

Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013

Thomas Hart Benton heist isn’t exactly a work of art

The Kansas City Star

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A thief broke into the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio early Wednesday and made off with an original signed sketch worth $16,000.

But his planning and getaway proved lacking.

Kansas City police officers arrested a suspect on a bicycle as he tried to pedal away from the scene with two picture frames jutting from his unzipped backpack.

“That kind of stands out at 4:30 in the morning,” said police Sgt. Mike Foster.

The officers stopped the bicyclist about half a block from the Midtown museum and recovered Benton’s black-and-white sketch called “Nebraska Farm Yard,” which features a farmer and pigs.

Among the other loot in the backpack was a framed poster of a Benton painting, $169 stolen from a donation box and an old cat food tin that Benton used to store art supplies.

“He didn’t get everything he planned,” Foster said. “We found other pictures stacked up inside the museum, but he apparently didn’t have room in his backpack.”

Jackson County prosecutors charged 38-year-old Antonio Carrillo, a convicted burglar on probation, with second-degree burglary. Court records accused him of using a screwdriver to pry open a locked door. He remained in custody Wednesday night. He asked police to return his bike to his apartment, just a few blocks from the museum, and secure it for him, which they did.

The caretaker at the museum at 3616 Belleview Ave. identified the stolen items, including the one-of-a-kind sketch that was on loan to the museum. He told police the intrusion alarm woke him about 4:15 a.m. as he slept in the main house. He saw lights flickering in Benton’s carriage house and then spotted a man fleeing with some objects.

Benton, Missouri’s most renowned 20th century artist, lived in the two-story quarried limestone home from 1939 until his death in 1975. He had converted half of the carriage house into an art studio, and according to the museum’s website, the studio remains how he left it when he died, complete with cans of paintbrushes, jars of paint and a blank canvas.

The artist painted realistic American lifestyles and was awarded a commission for the mural in the state Capitol.

The pilfered sketch was a gift from Benton to a neighbor one Christmas, said Lucy Terry, a descendent of Benton’s neighbors, who still lives across the street and now owns the sketch. She said the sketch was one of more than a dozen that Benton gave her grandparents over the years. Other relatives own the other pieces and keep them privately displayed.

Terry displayed her sketch in her home but decided three years ago that it deserved a bigger audience. She loaned it to the museum and said it was one of a few originals kept at the home. It was displayed in Benton’s art studio to help showcase Benton’s painting process, which involved starting with sketches.

She appreciated the officers’ quick response and ability to catch the thief before he could get away. She said the frame was damaged slightly when it was shoved into the backpack, but the sketch remained pristine.

Despite the heist, Terry said the sketch will remain displayed at the museum. Museum officials, who declined interview requests, told her they planned to beef up security by adding surveillance cameras to the extensive alarm system.

“I think it’s important for the public to see it,” she said. “I’m so pleased the museum is there and I want to do what I can to support it.”

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

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