There’s nary a week that passes where, in some corner of Texas, someone isn’t getting up to something that we can only describe as “antics.” Sometimes these take place in a small town, under the cover of darkness, and the rest of us learn about them only because somebody’s cousin blabbed to somebody else. Other times, city folk are the ones engaging in such hijinks. The headlines from these stories capture our attention and captivate our imaginations. In Meanwhile, in Texas, we explore the genuine weirdness that our fellow Texans often engage in.
On Tuesday night, a pair of would-be art thieves in Houston attempted to commit a glamorous crime: breaking into the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Bayou Bend Collection and Garden in River Oaks, with the suspected intent to pull off an honest-to-gosh heist. According to the museum, the duo is believed to have consisted of a man and a woman, who are accused of entering the illustrious mansion in which the collection is housed at around 6:45 p.m. How did they enter? If the words “art heist” mean anything, they mean that the thieves did not attempt to enter through the front door: rather, they squeezed through a grate covering a basement window on the museum’s north terrace.
What did they steal?
Alas, nothing. The heist wasn’t meant to be. The museum’s burglar alarm sounded, alerting a security guard to the intruders’ presence. As detailed by the museum’s statement on the attempted crime, they escaped through the main door on the museum’s southern facade, after which the security guard gave chase (!) as they darted through the woods (!!) on their way to a motorized fishing boat (!!!) they had prepared as a getaway vehicle, waiting for them on the nearby Buffalo Bayou.
Did they get clean away?
So far, it appears that way. After evading the security guard, the waterborne burglars navigated the bayou to a storm drain, where they abandoned their craft and, thus far, seem to have vanished. Police found the boat, investigated the museum, and explained that “no one was harmed and no works of art were damaged,” and that “nothing appears to have been removed from the premises.”
Who were they?
Nobody knows! That’s what happens when you complete a successful getaway.
You sound kind of impressed by these burglars?
I mean, kind of, yeah? Certainly, we don’t wish to encourage our readers to commit crimes of moral turpitude, and stealing valuable things that don’t belong to you is definitely not a good thing. But we are not immune to the allure of certain crimes as being, uh, pretty cool, and decades of heist movies and shows—from The Thomas Crown Affair to The Great Muppet Caper to Ocean’s Eleven to Bonnie & Clyde to Lupin—have worked their magic. We acknowledge the glamour conjured by the words “art thieves.” That’s especially true when the caper A) results in no injuries or material losses, B) was planned elaborately enough that the criminals found a basement window to enter through, and C) was conducted both by land and by sea.
They still set off that alarm, though.
True, yes. These are C+ art thieves at best. Danny Ocean would not accept them into his crew.
Is art theft a thing that happens often in Texas?
Depends on your definition of “often,” really, but it happens more often than you might think! Right here in the Lone Star State, there are instances of high-end art, some of which is of immense value, being either taken, purchased despite being of dubious provenance, and/or disputed by multiple owners with claims to the work.
That’s true of pieces by contemporary artists such as Nicole Charbonnet and Erin Cone, who each had several paintings stolen from a trailer in a Dallas parking lot while in transit from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Louisiana in 2019. (The FBI is still seeking leads in the case, though a possible break came in January, when a mysterious caller reached out to Cone and to Charbonnet’s art dealer, seeking a reward for returning the paintings.) It’s true of a pair of priceless stolen thirteenth-century Byzantine frescoes purchased and restored by Houston collector Dominique de Menil, half of the couple for whom the city’s Menil Collection is named, in the 1990s. After being displayed in Houston for more than a decade, the frescoes were returned to the Church of Cyprus in 2012. Just this month, a similar case in Dallas led to the return of a looted ancient artifact, the Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana, to its native Nepal.
And then there’s the pair of portraits of the actress Farrah Fawcett, painted by the legendary Andy Warhol, which the actress bequeathed to the University of Texas—but one of which remained for years in the possession of her former beau Ryan O’Neal. (O’Neal’s possession of the work was discovered, naturally, while he was filming a reality TV show, because the camera captured it hanging on his dang wall. After a lengthy legal battle, O’Neal was allowed to keep the painting.) Another recent scandal took place in Houston, where a ring of art thieves targeted the city’s wealthy socialite community—including former mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee, who used the example to argue for “more police on the street” during his campaign. Those burglars were arrested in the summer of 2019, after months of casing their targets via social media.
Do any of those stories contain the cinematic gravitas of two mysterious villains breaking into a stately mansion that houses nearly five thousand pieces of decorative art created between 1620 and 1870?
They do not. But neither do they involve anybody splashing around the sewers empty-handed, with their boat in the possession of the police, so we’ll call it a wash. In any case, the bungling bayou burglars did better than the 2014 attempted art thieves who tried to steal an oversized canvas work and escape through Houston’s downtown tunnel system but found themselves stymied by size of the 6-by-6-foot piece, which was too large to fit through the entryway.
For more Meanwhile, in Texas misadventures, read our monthly roundups of the state’s quirkiest news.