Nude art heist hits Citizen Hotel’s Scandal Bar. Naturally.
It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving when someone at The Citizen Hotel noticed the nude portrait was gone. The artwork, a signed print of Hav-a-Havana #6 by Sacramento native Mel Ramos, had hung without incident in the men’s restroom below the hotel’s second-floor Scandal Bar since its opening in 2009. Suddenly, on the afternoon of Nov. 24, a hotel engineer approached The Citizen’s general manager Brent Larkin with distressing news: The provocative print had vanished.
So began a feverish quest to recover the racy, pricey work by Ramos, whose local roots and 50 years of singular (if controversial) Pop Art prowess was recognized in 2012 with a career retrospective at the Crocker Art Museum. Best known for his paintings of nude women luxuriating around food, animals and instantly recognizable commercial logos, Ramos’ works have fetched six figures at auction. An original oil painting of Hav-a-Havana #6, featuring a naked woman suggestively straddling a Cohiba cigar, sold earlier this year at Sotheby’s for $305,000. The Citizen’s print, number 46 in a limited edition of 50, is likely valued in the thousands of dollars.
Yesterday, after studying hours of security-camera footage and embarking on a flurry of crowdsourced social-media detective work, Larkin got his thief—and his Ramos.
“It took a week with the holidays and all for me to really dive in and figure out what was going on,” says Larkin, who didn’t exactly have the benefit of a camera trained on the men’s bathroom wall to find the culprit. He did, however, have tapes from a camera mounted nearby, including video from around noon on Nov. 24—shortly after the last time any one had seen the Ramos print in the loo.
On those tapes, Larkin and his team spotted a man entering the restroom holding a tuxedo bag by its hanger. Moments later, he exited clutching a more awkwardly stuffed tuxedo bag. The man was then seen stepping out of an elevator en route to his room.
Surveying the guest records, Larkin assembled a short list of names affiliated with a wedding party staying at the Citizen. “Just by luck,” he says, “the first name I chose to look at, I googled him and found a [picture on a] LinkedIn page that looked exactly like him.”
Better still, Larkin found that he shared a mutual connection with the suspected art thief. They consulted about his hunch, which only solidified soon after when Larkin found incriminating party photos of the print-poacher on Facebook that he won’t comment on. On Monday, Dec. 2, Larkin handed off his footage and other evidence to the Sacramento Police Department. The next day, detectives paid The Citizen a visit, agreeing that management had cracked the case.
Within hours, Larkin received a call from the detectives, who found the profoundly remorseful amateur art heister at his residence. When the police arrived, the culprit opened the door and said to them, “Thank you for coming.” He told the police that he already knew the hotel was on to him because he noticed that members of the hotel staff had viewed his LinkedIn account that week. After the bust, he called Larkin to explain that he had taken the Ramos painting as an intoxicated impulse after a long night of partying, and that he’d spent the week considering ways to return the work without getting busted.
“The more he thought about it, the harder it was for him to find a way to do it where he didn’t have to walk in and hand it to somebody,” Larkin says. “When [the cops] showed up, it took away his angst of what to do. The guilt was killing him.”
An impromptu Citizen tribunal convened to determine the thief’s penalty. Opting against pressing charges, the hotel executives instead conjured a punitive crackdown of their own. First, they asked him to commit to donating 40 hours of service to the homeless shelter Loaves & Fishes by the end of December. He readily agreed. The second “punishment” was leveled more in the spirit of cheeky comeuppance (not to mention clever marketing).
Yesterday, Dec. 5, at the hotel’s request, the thief returned to the scene of the crime and took pen to paper, filling a page of Citizen letterhead with the sentence, “I will never again get drunk at a wedding and steal the Naked Cigar Picture above the urinal in the Citizen Hotel,” a la Bart Simpson on a classroom chalkboard, over and over. (The thief, whom Larkin declines to name, also handwrote an apology for “wasting the invaluable time of the Sacramento Police Department.”) Larkin says the letter will be framed and displayed alongside a newly remounted—and very securely fastened—Ramos print early next week.
Larkin credits the holiday season for the hotel’s leniency, but warns that other prospective bathroom bandits won’t receive a similarly spirited Citizen’s arrest.