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PEBBLE BEACH — It was reported as one of the biggest thefts of fine art in history – $80 million worth of paintings by Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh and other masters spirited from a seaside home in Pebble Beach by a burglar who left a note demanding a ransom and threatening violence. But the Monterey County Sheriff's Office said today that the purported heist Sept. 25 may have been something else entirely.

‘Art theft’ smells fishy, investigators say

Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

(10-06) 11:48 PDT PEBBLE BEACH — It was reported as one of the biggest thefts of fine art in history – $80 million worth of paintings by Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh and other masters spirited from a seaside home in Pebble Beach by a burglar who left a note demanding a ransom and threatening violence.

But the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office said today that the purported heist Sept. 25 may have been something else entirely.

Officials said they were investigating “other scenarios,” including that the men who reported the burglary to police made it up, and that the report was part of an insurance scam or some other attempted fraud.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Richards, whose agency is planning to hold a press conference this afternoon in Salinas. “They’re reporting the second-largest art theft in the history of the United States, and we can’t even verify it happened.”

Richards said the men who reported the theft – Angelo Amadio, 31, and Dr. Ralph Kennaugh, 62 – had not provided investigators with documentation that the paintings existed, such as photographs or letters of authenticity, nor had they detailed how or when they acquired them.

“They gave us a list (of paintings),” Richards said. “That was about it.”

Reached today, Amadio first said he couldn’t talk for “safety reasons,” but then blasted the sheriff’s office, saying detectives were now questioning him and Kennaugh to cover up the fact that they “botched the investigation.”

He said he would issue his own press release and had asked the FBI to take over the burglary probe.

“We’re not cooperating with them anymore,” Amadio said of the sheriff’s office.

Amadio said he is chief executive of Alternative Asset Investments Inc., which he described as a company that deals with artwork. He also said he is a law student, but would not say where.

Before moving to California, Amadio ran a puppy-selling business in Boston.

Kennaugh is a retired Boston oncologist and former Harvard Medical School professor. Amadio described him as a business partner he met 10 years ago.

The new course by investigators follows a bizarre 10 days in which they and the alleged victims of the heist have seen their relationship deteriorate.

The case began about 7 p.m. Sept. 25, Richards said, when Amadio called the sheriff’s office to report the burglary. He initially said the haul included works by Pollock, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, Henri Matisse and Joan Miró, and that the total value of the stolen works was $27 million.

Also missing was $3,100 in cash and a computer, Amadio and Kennaugh said. The men, citing the advice of their attorney, offered a $1 million reward for the return of the artwork.

Richards said police had dusted the men’s rented home for fingerprints, talked to neighbors and viewed surveillance video from cameras in the area, but found no evidence of a break-in.

The men provided the name of a possible suspect as well, but Richards said the Southern California resident “had an airtight alibi.”

In the ensuing days, Richards said, the men reported finding that other treasured paintings were missing and upped the estimated loss to $80 million. Then, on Sept. 29, Richards said, an associate of the men reported finding a ransom note stuffed behind some surviving paintings in their home.

“We were out there … and one of them walked up to our investigators, who’d already been over the house with a fine-tooth comb, and said, ‘I just found this note,’ ” Richards said. “The note demanded a ransom for the return of the paintings. It also conveyed death threats if they were to report it to law enforcement.”

Richards said the case had consumed the time of several investigators, who were increasingly frustrated at the alleged victims’ lack of cooperation.

“As soon as we started questioning them about stuff, it started going sideways,” Richards said. “If it was your painting stolen – or your car stolen – you’d be telling the cops everything you knew.”

Amadio said he and Kennaugh had just $72,000 in insurance coverage for their art collection – which he said his partner had built over three decades – but had been in the process of improving their security as they contemplated adding more coverage.

“Why would we make a police report on artwork that is uninsured?” he asked. “We have nothing to gain from that.”

Amadio said documentation of the paintings’ authenticity, including what he described as an original bill of sale from Pollock, had been stolen in the heist – but not before being seen by his insurance agent. He said that agent would be issuing a statement.

He said the most valuable painting was an untitled work by Pollock. He said he would provide a photo of it to the FBI, but not to the sheriff’s office.

“There have been very few owners – three or four as I can trace,” Amadio said. “It’s known amongst Pollock collectors, I think.”

E-mail Demian Bulwa at dbulwa@sfchronicle.com.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/10/06/BA581A1R2I.DTL&tsp=1

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