San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Thieves target works by celebrated Tico artist Rafa Fernández

Jonathan Harris never knew he was a target, but he knew he had something coveted.

On the morning of Oct. 9, a crew of art thieves cruised slowly through his gated Escazú community west of San José in a white Mitsubishi Montero.

The men stopped in front of Harris’ house, donned black ski masks and burst through two of Harris’ doors, including a hefty steel front door.

“They were going to break in whether anyone was home or not,” said Francisco Segura, an assistant director for Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). 

The group was in and out in 15 minutes and, by the time the police arrived, the men had sped away.

Harris arrived home later that day. The front door was demolished and his walls were bare.

“Everyone saw them take the paintings, but these are violent criminals we’re talking about, and no one wanted to confront them,” Harris said.

Harris had decorated his house with original artwork by one of Costa Rica’s most famous and productive modern painters, Rafa Fernández, who, at age 75, continues to create some of the finest oil-based paintings in the country. In February 2009 – more than 55 years after he showcased his first masterpiece – Fernández presented 25 new works of art at the Calderón Guardia Museum in eastern San José.

The collection at the Harris residence dated to the 1970s and included more recent paintings that Harris had purchased to adorn his parents’ house nearby. The exact value of Harris’ stolen Fernández collection is unknown, but he estimates that the eight works taken from his house easily topped six figures.

“I don’t expect (the paintings) will turn up anywhere,” Harris said.

Harris filed a police report with the OIJ, and the investigation is ongoing. Meanwhile, other collectors of Fernández’s works have also been robbed.

The OIJ is currently investigating four separate cases that involve stolen Fernández paintings. Works have disappeared from homes in Heredia, north of San José, Curridabat, an eastern suburb of San José, and Barrio Escalante, a neighborhood within the capital city’s limits.

In some cases, the paintings turned up displayed at homes of innocent buyers and in private galleries.

The OIJ recently discovered one stolen Fernández painting at a home in Moravia, a suburb northeast of San José.

According to Segura, the Moravia woman who purchased the painting invited a friend to see it. The friend recognized the painting and the two alerted police. No charges were filed against the unwitting new owner.

Police haven’t been as lucky in finding the other stolen paintings.

Segura said that some collectors likely buy Fernández’s paintings knowing they are stolen property.

“[Buyers] keep [the art] hidden and use it for their own satisfaction,” Segura said. “These are the rings that are hard to crack. Art thieves are not your average criminals. They are highly specialized.”

Art theft is not a typical crime in Costa Rica, but it’s not unheard of, either. Segura said that the OIJ has handled cases of stolen Picasso paintings and well-known statues.

But perhaps what has made Fernandez’s paintings so desirable recently, besides their beauty, could be the artist’s poor health. In 2002, he suffered two frightening strokes that left him in delicate condition. Segura said the burglars likely saw an opportunity to cash in by stealing a collection of art that is increasing in value.

The robbery at the Harris household occurred during the day, and neighbors saw the thieves enter and leave with the stolen items. The thieves were captured on surveillance video. But the OIJ has so far been unable to make an arrest.

Segura also had advice for other owners of Fernández’s work: “Anyone who owns a Fernández painting should get some type of security system, because [thieves] know what [you] have.”

Reporter Adam Williams contributed to this story.

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