I could easily have pulled off the greatest art heist in history.
Millions and millions of dollars worth of paintings were mine for the taking.
No alarm sounded. No cops. No witnesses.
Today, the original of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party could be hanging above the mantel in the living room of my townhouse in Mississauga, instead of my photo of a flying wood stork.
And Dufy’s The Artist’s Studio would look good in my home office.
Such treasures would be mine if only I’d had a proclivity for thievery 45 years ago today.
On May 29, 1972, I was in Washington with my Swiss wife Anita, who schlepped this kid from Queens through the art museums of two continents during our short-lived marriage.
So, on this hot, sunny Memorial Day in the mecca of American history, instead of paying respects to Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Jefferson, we went to see the Phillips Collection of modern (mostly European) art.
I parked my dark blue Fiat 124 sedan on the street right in front of the gallery. We walked to the front door, opened it, and went inside. There was no one there.
In the entranceway, we admired a small Braque. We walked up a staircase and stood before that large Renoir canvas of the Boating Party, in its gilded frame.
Not another breathing soul around. Just the two of us and those Parisian partygoers, Renoir’s chums from the 1880s, drinking and gabbing on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Seine.
We moseyed on, dawdled in front of paintings by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat.
“This is weird,” I finally said to Anita. “We could just take any of these paintings and walk out the door.”
“What should we do?” she asked.
Since we were leaving Washington the next day and didn’t know when we might return, we decided to spend a little more time with the paintings.
After about a half hour or so, we began to head out. “Let’s see if we can call someone,” I said.
We went back to the entranceway and found the reception desk. It had one of those sliding shelves where people often pasted lists of phone numbers. Sure enough, I found a list.
There was a number for a “Mrs. Phillips.” I dialed it on the phone atop the desk.
A woman answered.
“Mrs. Phillips?” I asked.
“My name is Ken Becker and I’m inside your gallery right now but no one else is here.”
“Yes,” she said, “we’re closed today.”
“But my wife and I just walked in. The doors were unlocked.”
“That’s odd,” she said.
“Yes it is,” I said. “What would you like us to do?”
No reply for a moment. “Well, I’ll call our security company. If you wouldn’t mind waiting there until they arrive …”
“No problem,” I said, and hung up.
Anita and I stood inside the front door and guarded the Braque. When we saw a couple of rent-a-cops pull up and rush up the walkway, we met them outside.
“How’d you get in there,” one snapped.
“We just walked in,” I said, turning to demonstrate how I’d grabbed each handle of the double-doors and pulled. The doors opened.
“You’re not supposed to do it that way,” said the uniformed security man. He closed the doors, grasped only one handle, pulled, and the doors stayed locked.
I laughed. “You mean anybody with two hands can get in but you’re counting on them to only pull one handle?”
He and his partner nodded. Dumbfounded. But not amused.
They looked us over, apparently checking to see whether I had a Degas in my pants or Anita had a Klee in her purse, before dismissing us with a wave.
All these years later, I envision filling my Fiat with great Impressionist works, driving up the Jersey Turnpike, home to New York, with the Renoir strapped to the roof.
When Anita and I split up later that year, she took the Beatles albums and I got the Sinatra and Simon and Garfunkel.
But I can now imagine us sitting around the living room of our apartment in Queens with priceless canvases strewn about.
I want the Picasso.
Fine, but I’ll take the Matisse.
No, I want the Matisse.
I’ll trade you two Cezannes for the Matisse.
Let’s divvy up the Van Goghs.
Okay, but who gets the Renoir?
Considering all the places I’ve lived since then – Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Maine, Northern Ontario, Mississauga – I would have had to hire a Brink’s truck to haul my stash of paintings from house to house.
And now I’d have that Renoir above the mantel.
Or maybe Gauguin’s The Ham in the kitchen.
And Picasso’s The Blue Room in the john.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.