The Time a Salvador Dali Painting Was Stolen From Rikers Island

Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1951
Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1951
Ron Gerelli/Express/Getty Images

On February 26, 1965, Salvador Dali awoke feeling feverish. With the temperature outside the window of his New York City hotel plummeting and the wind howling, he canceled a big item on the day’s agenda: a visit to Rikers Island. Neither he, his wife Gala, or his pet ocelot Babou, who traveled with him everywhere, would take the boat to the prison complex in the East River, where Dali was scheduled to give an art lesson to inmates. 

But Dali didn’t want to disappoint. Still clad in his pajamas, he summoned his associate Nico Yperifanos, who had organized the visit, and dictated a message: Dali wouldn’t make it to Rikers, but his art would. Brush in hand, Dali set about creating a surrealist interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion—a monstrous black blob wearing a crown of thorns, atop inky red-and-black splatters all set against a pale cross. Scrawled at the bottom of the four-by-five feet painting were the words: “For the dinning room of the prisoners Rikers Island S.D.” (Dali was never big on proper spelling.)

A picture from the time shows Yperifanos presenting the painting to a stern, and perhaps slightly befuddled-looking, Corrections Commissioner named Anna Kross. According to accounts later reported in the Los Angeles Times, Yperifanos delivered the painting with rousing words from Dali to the inmates: "He'd like to give a message to the prisoners that you are artists. Don't think your life is finished for you. With art, you have to always feel free.” 

Officials hung the painting in the cafeteria of the Correctional Institution for Men, near trash cans where inmates disposed of their leftovers. Over time, it racked up both ketchup stains and doubts about its provenance. When a warden named Alexander Jenkins took over in 1981, he was skeptical about whether Dali was truly the painting’s creator, telling one reporter, "There weren't any records on the painting, and for all I know it could have been an inmate's copy of a Dali.” 

The blob-of-thorns was taken down from its spot atop the trash cans and locked away, while a thick file of bureaucratic correspondence built up. Officials debated the best course of action—should the painting be cleaned, sold, or duplicated in prints to raise money for the prison? Finally, in the late 1980s, officials decided to re-hang the work (alongside a plaque authenticating it) in a new location, near the prison’s main entrance, between a soda fountain and pay phones. This time, it would be far from prisoners, kept behind locked doors about 100 feet away. 

In the end, the inmates weren’t a danger to the art—the guards were. In early March 2003, staff noticed that the painting looked different: smaller, missing its mahogany-and-gold frame, and somehow transformed from the work of a master artist to the product of a child “with no artistic talent.” The staff called the police, and suspicion soon fell on prison officers—after all, not many people knew of the painting’s existence, and the fake didn’t exactly look like the work of a professional art thief. 

According to court documents, the theft was hatched in the Rikers bodega—a store inside the massive complex (Rikers also has its own schools, ball fields, barbershops, bakery, laundromat, print shop, and car wash). Two assistant deputy wardens—one of whom had access to the key for the painting's plexiglass display case—and two officers believed they could sell the painting for $1 million, and planned to split the proceeds. 

There was just one problem: The painting was in full view of two 24-hour guard stations. To provide a distraction, one of the assistant deputy wardens would trigger a false fire alarm, during which all prison staff were required to meet at a staging area a mile away. The plan was for the thieves to hang back, with one unlocking the case, removing the Dali and stapling the fake in its place, while another smuggled the real Dali to his car and then to a storage space rented on the Internet under a fake name. After one aborted attempt, the thieves pulled off the caper successfully around midnight on March 1, 2003. It was a perfect crime—or so they thought. 

But once the crude fake triggered staff concern, the men started sweating. One of the officers, Greg Sokol, turned himself in and began co-operating with investigators, secretly recording conversations with the other men. Another officer, Timothy Pina, also co-operated with police and taped his co-conspirators. By June 2003, the four men had been dismissed from the Corrections Department and charged with grand larceny. Initially, all four denied the charges, but Sokol, Pina, and an assistant deputy warden named Mitchell Hochhauser later pled guilty. Hochhauser was sentenced to three years in prison, Pina was sentenced to 5 years probation, and Sokol was sentenced to three years probation and fined $1000. Another assistant deputy warden, Benny Nuzzo, was acquitted of charges that he had masterminded the theft

The painting has never been recovered. Hochhauser told prosecutors that Nuzzo had said he destroyed the art in a fit of panic not long after stealing it. As a spokesman for then-mayor Bloomberg put it around the time of the theft, “Who knew that it might have been safer left in the cafeteria?" 

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

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The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

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This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

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In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

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Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

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9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

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Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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New Online Art Exhibition Needs the Public’s Help to Track Down Lost Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and More

Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you wanted to compare both versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in person, you couldn’t. While the second one currently hangs in Paris’s Musée d'Orsay, the public hasn’t seen the original painting since 1990. In fact, nobody’s really sure where it is—after its owner Ryoei Saito died in 1996, the precious item passed from private collector to private collector, but the identity of its current owner is shrouded in mystery.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is one of a dozen paintings in “Missing Masterpieces,” a digital exhibit of some of the world’s most famous lost artworks. It’s not the only Van Gogh in the collection. His 1884 painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was snatched from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren museum earlier this year; and his 1888 painting The Painter on His Way to Work has been missing since World War II. Other works include View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne, William Blake’s Last Judgement, and two bridge paintings by Claude Monet.

Paul Cézanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the University of Oxford's art museum on New Year's Eve in 1999.Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new online exhibit is a collaboration between Samsung and art crime expert Noah Charney, who founded The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. It isn’t just a page where art enthusiasts can explore the stories behind the missing works—it’s also a way to encourage people to come forward with information that could lead to the recovery of the works themselves.

“From contradictory media reports to speculation in Reddit feeds—the clues are out there, but the volume of information can be overwhelming,” Charney said in a press release. “This is where technology and social media can help by bringing people together to assist the search. It’s not unheard of for an innocuous tip posted online to be the key that unlocks a case.”

The exhibition will be online through February 10, 2021, and citizen sleuths can email their tips to missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]