Suspicious man uses knife to destroy $3 million painting in Aspen gallery

Gallery owner got calls about painting in weeks leading up to crime;
police call incident "extremely suspicious"

Jason Auslander / Aspen Times
One of two cuts made in the "Untitled 2004" painting by Christopher Wool.

The quiet of Aspen’s offseason was punctured this week by a $3 million crime as unusual as it was bizarre.

An unknown man wearing sunglasses, a hat and a full beard on Tuesday afternoon entered a high-end art gallery near the base of Aspen Mountain, made a beeline for a wall-sized painting by artist Christopher Wool and slashed the canvas twice with a knife or razor blade before running out.

“It’s crazy,” Gregory Lahmi, owner of the Opera Gallery on Dean Street, said Wednesday. “First of all, I’m shocked for the work of the artist. It’s ugly to do that to (the painting).”

Priced at $2.95 million and titled “Untitled 2004,” the painting was destroyed, Lahmi said, though it was still hanging in the gallery Wednesday. It was being sold on consignment, he said.

“On it’s face, it’s extremely suspicious. There has to be a reason someone would want to destroy this painting.”

Lahmi’s assistant, who was alone in the gallery, said the man paid no attention to any other paintings — which include works by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall — and was only inside for about 15 seconds.

Lahmi said he has no idea what prompted the vandalism but in recent weeks has received three suspicious calls from a man using a blocked phone number asking if Lahmi had a Wool painting.

Aspen police also are unsure of a motive, but believe the crime was planned.

“On it’s face, it’s extremely suspicious,” Aspen Police Detective Jeff Fain said. “There has to be a reason someone would want to destroy this painting.”

Wool is not a controversial artist and is known as a “contemporary abstract master” who is part of the “new expressionist” movement, Lahmi said.

“He’s collected by the most important collectors in the world,” he said. “Wool is an artist I respect the most.”

WOOL’S WORKS: A Christopher Wool piece went for $26.4 million at auction

Natalia Sacasa, director of the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York that handles Wool’s works, also said she knew of no reason someone would want to target the artist’s painting. Sacasa declined to make Wool available for comment and said Wednesday she had not yet been able to tell him about the incident.

“It sounds like a really terrible thing to happen,” she said. “We feel badly for the owners of the painting and have offered to help if we can.”

The incident occurred about 4 p.m. Tuesday, when the man appeared outside the gallery and milled around the entrance briefly before entering, according to video surveillance. The man then opens the gallery door, places a block of wood in the door jamb so it cannot fully close, walks straight to the Wool painting, which is hanging on a wall opposite the door, takes an object with a black handle out of his pocket and slashes the painting twice, the video shows.

Lahmi’s assistant, sitting at a desk about 20 feet away from the painting, gets up and walks toward the man as he runs out of the gallery, grabbing the piece of wood from the door jamb as he leaves, the video shows. The man wore a glove only on his left hand, and appeared to be careful to touch the door and the block of wood with just his gloved hand.

Lahmi said his assistant, who asked not to be identified, then called him crying and told him what happened.

Fain said he thinks the man used the block of wood because some high-end jewelry stores and other businesses have alarms that magnetically lock down the entire building once they are triggered.

“That makes me believe this was well-thought-out,” he said.

Lahmi said that once he heard which painting was targeted he immediately thought of the phone calls.

The first came several weeks ago, when a man called from a blocked number and asked if Lahmi had works by Andy Warhol and Wool, Lahmi said. The man declined to give his name at the time, he said.

The man then called back two weeks ago, asked about the paintings again and said he was coming to Aspen soon to see them, Lahmi said. Finally, the man called April 26 and said he’d be in town this week and wanted to know if the Wool painting was still at the Aspen gallery. The man wouldn’t say the exact day he’d been in Aspen and still wouldn’t give his name, Lahmi said.

When Lahmi left the gallery about 1 p.m. Tuesday, he told his assistant to call him and he would return if the man interested in the Wool painting stopped by that afternoon.

“I was curious to see who it was,” said Lahmi, who added the slashed painting was Wool’s only work in the gallery.

Aspen police Detective Ritchie Zah said the painting’s owners, who have not been identified, bought it some time ago and the painting was now worth four to five times what they paid for it.

Aspen police have been able to determine the man ran down Dean Street to the Gondola Plaza, ran down Hunter Street to Cooper Avenue, took a left on Cooper and ran east, Zah said. Video from a clothing store at the corner of Cooper and Hunter captured the man running past and head down Cooper Avenue, Zha said.

He was canvassing other businesses in the area Wednesday in search of video that might help further identify the man, he said.

Anyone with information about the man who slashed the painting can call Aspen police at 970-920-5400.


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