Salvador Dali “Christ on the Cross” (1965) / Rikers Island prison
In March 2003, this (by then already damaged) painting on paper was stolen and, it seems, destroyed, by prison guards after being on view at New York’s Rikers Island prison.
In February 1965, Dali created the work - a surrealistic crucifixion scene painted on 4x5′ paper - as a gift to Rikers’ prisoners, inscribing the work: “For the inmates dinning room on Rikers Island. Dalí.”
The painting hung in the cafeteria as instructed for the next 16 years, accumulating new colors by way of red and brown splotches suspected to be ketchup and coffee stains.
At some point, the work was placed behind protective glass - but after a thrown coffee cup cracked that surface, the work was taken down to be reframed. At that point, administrators who had long overlooked the painting realized it was the work of a master and had it appraised: $250,000.
At that point, the “executive decision” was made to remove the painting from the view of the prisoners; after a few years boxed up in an office, the work was re-hung in a lobby used by prison employees, secured in a new gold frame.
Then, on March 1 2003, four guards arrived for their evening shifts. According to their plan (which they’d attempted four nights earlier, but had called off due to heavy guard presence): the first, a guard name Benny Nuzzo, pulled a fire alarm, while a second dispatched his accomplices to strategic lookout points while he switched out the original Dali for a fake.
The fake, created by Nuzzo himself, was poor: visibly smaller than the original and wildly off in its replication, with even the forged food stains done in the wrong colors. To make matters worse, where the original had been reset in a gold frame, Nuzzo simply stapled the fake to the wall, unframed.
The next day, other guards immediately noticed the change and alerted authorities. Since prison employees were the only ones with access to the work, and only certain employees were onhand that particular evening, the suspects were quickly rounded up and promptly turned on each other.
All four men were charged with second degree grand larceny, but strangely, only the three followers were sentenced to jail time. Nuzzo, the alleged ringleader of the whole operation, was acquitted in a jury trial - but not, he claims, before he destroyed the evidence in a fit of panic.