Many years ago, I saw a painting I instantly coveted. It was hanging in the hallway of a tony Memphis high school and anybody who might wish to grab the thing and run off with it probably could have. Upon a cursory inspection, I established who the artist was and what the painting was probably worth. In current values, I'd put it at $150,000.00, though, given the auction prices of similar work, I think I'm being a little coy. But a hundred and fifty grand is still a nice piece of change and, because of the time and place, I could have snatched the painting for myself and, like anybody who'll see an opportunity and take it, found the appropriate channels and disposed of it. Or tried to, failed, and ended up with a fast-appreciating objet d'art I could neither sell nor show to anybody.
I don't regret having left the painting to such colorful and conniving people who might conceive of a similar plan and actually go ahead with it. I "chickened out" because, while I fully endorse artistic brigandage, whereby one painter will "steal" from another, I can't quite square the practice of taking something that isn't mine with a moral-seeming worldview. And while I hardly subscribe to the Ten Commandments in its entirety, it isn't a bad place to start. And lest I sound like a Sunday school teacher here, I should add that, after the high-cholesterol thrill of making off with something, there's really nowhere to go with it. When an honest person steals, there's a "What now?" feeling that compels the honest person to undo his transgression. Allow me to acknowledge that I sound like a Sunday school teacher still; indeed, I may have imbibed the mealy-mouthed morality that comes of having too little pleasure in life - or way too much time of a Sunday morning. I grew up with people who wore Biblical pronouncements on their sleeves. I occasionally wonder whether they rolled these sleeves up - or just put on a different shirt now and then. From the look and sound of the people who still occupy the mean-looking little houses I grew up in, I can rest assured that few wardrobe changes have occurred.
Whatever the case, you ought not steal because of the ensuing complications. And because what you steal isn't really yours. And: because the thrill is over much too quickly. People say that about sex - which is also true - but it's even more so when you get your paintings (or whatever) on the run. (Unless coerced, sex is enjoyed by mutual agreement, in which case it can be thrilling for a short while. And everybody seems to think that's quite enough.)
How do I know stealing isn't good for you? Well, a long, long time ago, I fell into a watermelon patch that was rife with luscious globes that beckoned to me as if I were family. So I took a few, dragged them off to a secure location, and had my way with them. Sure enough, when I was done, I had that "What now?" sensation, which led to feelings of self-persecution, moral degradation, and, as the watermelon ceased to bloat my stomach, a rubyfruit-voiding episode I will leave to your imaginations. I do believe that crime in general pays excellent dividends, but only to people who can keep that watermelon down.
I knew such a person when I was growing up. Whereas most of us are endowed with screening devices that prompt us to back away from danger, this person embraced it. Shakespeare described a reckless man as someone who would gladly look into a cannon's mouth. This guy would not only have looked there, he would have scrambled to be first in line so that, he could have stuffed something explosive into it. And then got in. I used to marvel at this guy's special combination of steely nerves and absentee ethics. Where I would fear to tread, he would go with all cylinders running. When I screwed up the courage to follow, he was already onto something more dangerous. Eventually, I had to step aside and watch. There's no following such people. They make their own rules.
Nor did this guy ever get caught, even as the daring of his escapades increased. He just didn't seem to care. Or, rather, as he accomplished the impossible, the impossible became commonplace to him. When you tread such waters, there's nothing to do but find increasingly more perilous rapids and shoot 'em for all they're worth. Then what? Eventually, you're going to go under.
He didn't. As the water got faster, he slowed himself down and was able to glide on through. Or something. Whatever the case, he did what he did and got away with all of it.
Such people should stand as cautionary tales, waving us away - rather than inviting us - to the edge of the abyss. They are the exceptions that prove the rule whereby there are certain rules we shouldn't violate because, when we do, we're going to have heap of trouble. And if the thrill of doing something "bad" is quickly gone, the aftermath has a way of sticking to you.
As to bigger heists, however, I'm in favor of them. I think twenty-million dollar paintings should be stolen. Again and again and again! For one thing, there shouldn't be twenty-million dollar paintings. They're just sticks and a canvas, with a little - or big - smear on top. Amidst the second wave of Impressionist fever, the now-unsung Thomas Craven said anybody who wanted a little box of light on his wall shouldn't have to pay more than twenty-five dollars. And he was right. In a slightly more perfect world, paintings would be cheap. Or bartered. Or tossed in a community chest, then released. . .to the community. People should not starve when grainaries are full - or words to that effect.
In any case, I would consider stealing a twenty-million dollar painting, in part because the dynamics of stealing would not apply. What a potential thief must do in this case is challenge an inflated value by removing its physical embodiment from man (and woman's) sight. Then the thief, having worked his chops a bit, should move up to a 50-million dollar painting and take it. After an indecent waiting-period, he - or his agent - should re-sell it for a hundred thousand on the open market. That would have the effect of re-setting values. Those fair-minded souls who subscribe to the stick-and-smear philosophy, as I do, would come away with a more ecumenical sense of "How much?" Then they might abandon trophy-hunting and, as it were, buy local. There are so many inexpensive paintings that the field is limitless. Just get something good and wait around. Or stop waiting and just enjoy it.
The people who stole the Leger were probably hardened criminals whose philosophical orientation to their job might be described as developmental. They knew they could get a lot of money and went with that. And why not? Wouldn't we all go for the money if we thought we could have it? Furthermore, with a greater mission (re-setting values and whatnot) fueling us, how easily we might overcome such paltry obstacles as guards, security systems, and a moral sense that is tripped by a fear of exposure? Besides, no Leger has much intrinsic value, so if we happened to damage or lose it, the world as the ordinary person knows it would keep to its petty pace around the sun and make room for more ordinary people who would very likely never give Leger a thought. When truly great paintings are stolen, we don't think about the money. We just want them back. If the Mona Lisa went missing, for example, a few of us would think of the bottom line, but it would re-consider it. They're unintentionally mirroring the fact that their beachfront properties have lost value. (Their stock portfolios might be withering too.) In a quandary of "What to do?", these folk might even send checks to the Louvre. Generally speaking, however, emotional connections amount to a whole lot more than abstract monetary values. Therefore, we should devote our idle hours to stealing Legers and leaving the good stuff alone. There will always be a market for Leger's because we can't stop ourselves from creating top-heavy value systems. That's another good reason to steal Leger's. When such things go missing, people who are otherwise invulnerable feel like crap. For my money, that's the best possible reason for the removal of any precious object. It does my heart good to think that the over-endowed among us might be looking over their shoulders. It gives me an acute sense of satisfaction to think of them sitting in front of their next-favorite painting and wondering whether they should put it in the vault for a while. And it tickles me no end to believe that an insuperable confidence has gone by the board and been replaced by the enduring discomfort most of us can't help feeling every day of our lives.
May daring people always slip past guards, break a few windows, and laugh as they find the low road and stay on it. It gives us little folk something to cheer about. And, as I said, it takes us back to what we really value - which has nothing to do with cash.