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'Dumb thieves' fail to boost Riopelle sculpture for scrap

A pair of massive bronze statues by the late Jean-Paul Riopelle - worth about $1-million - were stolen from a public display area in Quebec. Provincial police say by the time they arrived, the two sculptures, created in 1963 and weighing 1,000 pounds, were gone.

Surete du Quebec/The Canadian Press/Surete du Quebec/The Canadian Press

As art heists go, this one wouldn't make it to Hollywood.

A trio of hapless thieves who tried to abscond with a $1-million sculpture by famed Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle ended up ditching their treasure instead in the Quebec woods. It was retrieved - broken but salvageable.

Members of the Riopelle family and experts say the thieves probably hoped to sell the one-of-a-kind bronze sculpture for scrap metal, which would have netted them as little as a few hundred dollars.

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The sculpture, titled La Défaite, had been sitting for 40 years outside the studio and home of the late artist in the Laurentians town of Estérel, north of Montreal. The massive work weighs about 1,000 pounds, and featured two abstract pieces rising about six feet.

A groundskeeper noticed on Monday that one of the pieces had been toppled. When an Estérel security agent showed up on the property on Monday night to check the grounds, he surprised the thieves at work.

One of them fled into the woods, while two others drove away in a white van.

They didn't get far. News of the heist quickly began to spread on Twitter and in the news media, and Quebec provincial police located the empty van Tuesday. A few hours later, they found the sculpture in the woods about two kilometres from the Riopelle property.

Each of the pieces had been broken in two.

"These guys were imbeciles. They were certainly not professionals," said Simon Blais, an art gallery owner and Riopelle expert in Montreal. He said it would have been close to impossible to unload an artwork of that bulk and weight. "You can't smuggle it. You can't put it on a plane."

He said the loss of the 1963 sculpture would have been a tragedy. Mr. Riopelle, although chiefly known for his brightly coloured mosaic canvasses painted with a palette knife, also produced sculptures in the 1960s. But few were of the size of La Défaite, Mr. Blais said. Adding to its value was the fact that it was a single cast and came from his early sculpture works.

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"This is a major work of art of an iconic Canadian painter and sculptor of the 20th century," he said. "It's a part of Canada's heritage. Imagine losing it because some dumb thieves hoped they might get a few hundred dollars in scrap metal. It would have been tragic."

A similar fate has befallen other prized artworks. A two-tonne bronze sculpture by Henry Moore worth £3-million was stolen from the estate of the Henry Moore Foundation in England in 2005, and police believe it was melted down and sold for about £1,500.

Some speculate that the thieves in the Laurentians didn't realize what they'd put their hands on - and didn't appreciate that the odd-shaped, highly abstract piece of art sitting outside a rustic waterfront home was the work of a man whose canvasses hang in the most famous museums of the world.

The Montreal-born Mr. Riopelle, who died at 78 in 2002, was an abstract master and one of Canada's most internationally celebrated painters.

"I think the thieves didn't realize the gravity of what they'd done," Mr. Riopelle's widow, Huguette Vachon, said. "Once they saw all the publicity, they realized their mistake and panicked."

She said Tuesday night that she has stored the sculpture in a Montreal warehouse, where she is going to have it appraised. But she believes it can be restored, and plans to display it again, in a safer place.

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"I'm just relieved," she said. "I was worried it would be melted down by now."

The three thieves, meanwhile, are still at large.

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