• Otter Views: Seagulls and Art Thefts

    by Tom Stevens

    otter seagullIs it just me, or have the seagulls gotten rowdier and more numerous lately? Night and day, hundreds suddenly form great bickering cyclones in mid-air, screeching, clattering and barking like dogs, pelting the town with artful splashes of guano.

    They ransack curbside cans and stalk the picnic tables at Lover’s Point, darting in to snatch hot dogs from the unwary. Beachgoers now scan the air nervously as they eat. Their heads swivel like radar arrays lest some swooping gull dive-bomb a sandwich right out of their grasp.

    Granted, I’ve only been here a brief time in seagull years, but even in that short span, things seem to have thickened up. Walking to church the other morning, I saw a gull on every light post, and several more on every roof top. Is this some kind of invasion?

    The San Jose Mercury News suggests something weird may be on the wing. The Bay Area reportedly is experiencing a sea gull population boom that has seen counts soar 40 percent in the past two years. An estimated 53,000 of the big white and gray California Gulls now wheel and squawk where only 24 were counted in 1980.

    Wazzup? The Mercury News would only say that scientists are scrambling to find an explanation. The report was more forthcoming about the boom’s effects. Apparently the Bay Area gulls have grown so numerous airports are reporting more frequent gull-plane collisions. Landfills, malls, schools and ballparks are under siege. Smaller sea birds and their eggs are vanishing into the gulls’ voracious maws.

    Because California Gulls are protected under migratory bird laws, addressing the population boom is a complex process. Simply sending Dick Cheney out with a shotgun won’t get it. And the biological clock is ticking. California Gulls reportedly can lay up to three eggs a year, and each can live to be 25 years old. If 53,000 gulls now reside in the South Bay alone, the math is not encouraging.

    If PG is seeing more gull activity than usual, I figure it could be a spillover from the boom up north. And befitting their bohemian big city origins, these invading gulls are highly artistic. PG surfaces beneath popular gull roosts have become sidewalk Jackson Pollocks of inestimable worth.

    All of which leads, in a very roundabout way, to the past week’s second riveting report. This one was in Friday’s New York Times, and it was a strange tale indeed. Back in October, a crack team of art thieves broke into Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum, disabled the security system, and sped away with seven canvases valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The entire operation took 96 seconds.

    Months of painstaking detective work finally traced one suspect to a small village in Romania, the Times reported. There a middle-aged woman told investigators that her son, fearing arrest, had asked her in November to hide something for him. It was a suitcase containing seven “strangely beautiful” paintings.

    Transferring the paintings to a plastic bag, the mother reportedly hid them at her sister’s house, then in a garden. Finally, as investigators arrived and started combing the village, she reportedly buried the bag in the town cemetery. By this point her son had indeed been arrested on suspicion of theft, so the pressure mounted.

    But then, one freezing night in February, the mother reportedly told Romanian police, “an idea sprang into my mind.” In its way, it was as strangely beautiful as the pictures: without the evidence, her son could not be convicted. Stoking a big fire in her wood-burning stove, she retrieved the picture sack from the cemetery.

    “I put the whole package with the seven paintings, without even opening it, into the stove, and then placed over them some wood and my plastic slippers and waited for them to fully burn,” the mother reportedly told investigators. “The next day I cleaned the stove, took out the ash, and placed it in the garden, in a wheelbarrow.”

    Naturally, the police smelled a red herring. International art thieves sophisticated enough to swipe from a major museum seven priceless paintings in 96 seconds wouldn’t consign them to a simple village matron.  Would they?

    otter picasso

    Alas, scrupulous forensic analysis of ashes retrieved from the mother’s garden suggests that pictures by Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Lucien Freud and Meyer de Haan might indeed have gone up in smoke. The Picasso and Matisse were done on paper, so left no trace. But the older paintings left residues of pigment, canvas and framing hardware consonant with what the 19th century European masters used.

    It could still be a ruse, of course. The thieves could have gotten old pigments, canvas and framing hardware elsewhere. But the detail about the plastic slippers is troubling. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 29, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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