Bill Reid Art Theft Still a Mystery

by Cam Martin

During the weekend of May 24, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology was burglarized. Twelve gold jewelry pieces by local artist Bill Reid, and 3 mexican gold necklaces were stolen, and very few clues were left behind. Throughout the investigation, the police have been very secretive to the media about the events of the case, claiming that revealing too much would compromise the case. But some of their tactics and choices have confused even the most imaginative pundit.

According to police, the thieves appear to have been very prepared for the robbery. A phone call to the museum was placed ahead of time and the caller, posing as a security consultant, informed the museum of a potential alarm problem, and that they were to ignore any alarm they received that day. This bought the thieves some time before they were discovered. In addition, several hours before they entered the building, the thieves disabled the security cameras. This normally produces an alarm but, because of the earlier phone call, security officers were not worried.

The night of the burglary, while the guard was having a cigarette break, the thieves broke in, donned gas masks and then doused the entrance in bear spray to ward off any unwanted security. It is believed that the pieces were targeted directly, as no other works were disturbed and the golden necklaces from mexico which were not on open display were retrieved without searching. Their place in the museum’s storage facility was known before hand.

The total theft was estimated at 2 million dollars. On the Monday after the weekend, Canadian Press reported that UBC and the Museum are jointly offering a $50,000 reward for the return of the works. This reward could also help lure out the thieves as it would be difficult to fence the stolen works as their pictures were plastered across the newspapers, the reward may be their only way of making money.

The thieves knowledge of the security system as well as their awareness of the location of all the stolen works began to fuel suspicions that perhaps there was an insider involved in the theft. Although this question has been posed, police will not corroborate any notions of employee involvement.

At first it was believed that the pieces were stolen to for their value as precious metals. The police feared that the pieces would be melted down and the unique art of a amazing artist would be lost. Also, the raw gold would be indistinguishable from any other making the tracking of the thieves next to impossible. But, a curator for the museum says that the real value of these works lies in their place in Canadian artistry. Melted down, the raw gold would be only worth about $15,000, a fraction of its cultural value to the First Nations people and Canada.

Bill Reid’s widow, Martine, was said to be very distressed by the theft and hoped that the reward will get the works of art back. Reid is considered to be one of Canada’s most important artists of the 20th century. Four of his works appear on the Canadian $20 bill. He was trained as a goldsmith and worked in sculpture, carvings, jewelry and painting. His work reflected traditional Northwest Coast native art. Reid died in 1998, leaving a legacy of Canadian art that spans many decades and mediums.

Almost no new information was released to the public while the police continued their investigation. Then on June 10, the news was released that ten of the Bill Reid pieces have been recovered, and all three mexican necklaces had been recovered. The result of an international search, with the help of Interpol, which included the efforts of more than 50 investigators from different detachments worked around the clock, including 24-hour surveillance of suspects.

The recovery came after searching several Lower Mainland residences, locating the stolen goods in Burnaby and New Westminster. “After searching both residences extensively, all but two stolen Bill Reid art exhibits were recovered intact,” Inspector FitzPatrick said in a prepared statement, while giving some details on intentions for the stolen works. “While we are satisfied that we have recovered most of the stolen items, the RCMP would like to seek the public’s assistance in recovering the last two items which we have reason to believe are still in the Lower Mainland area. Our investigation to date indicates those items likely went to a local buyer or stolen property broker.”

The Vancouver police have not given very many details about the recovery, or any of the suspects involved. Three people were in custody immediately following the recovery, but they were released on lack of evidence. Responding to this lack of conclusion police reassure the media that the investigation is far from over.

Scant details have made this story difficult to follow. Suspicions that the job was committed by an international art theft ring circulate but, nothing is confirmed or denied by the police. Perhaps we should just be happy that most of the treasured works have been returned, and pray and hope for the return of the remaining two so that the marvelous collection can be complete again.