By CAROL VOGEL and SOLOMON MOORE
Published: September 12, 2009
LOS ANGELES — The theft of 10 silkscreen paintings by Andy Warhol has the Los Angeles Police Department searching for clues, but it has people in the art world scratching their heads, too.
The paintings were stolen from the West Los Angeles home of Richard L. Weisman, a businessman and prominent collector. A $1 million reward has been offered by Mr. Weisman for information leading to the paintings’ recovery.
On Friday, the Los Angeles police said that the paintings — images of athletes including Muhammad Ali, Chris Evert, Dorothy Hamill, Tom Seaver, Jack Nicklaus and O. J. Simpson — were taken from Mr. Weisman’s dining room. A housekeeper called the police; Mr. Weisman was out of town at the time.
Detective Donald Hrycyk, one of two investigators assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department’s art theft detail, said the paintings were stolen either on the day they were reported missing, Sept. 3, or the day before.
“It’s hard to say what they want to do with them, but it looks like somebody knew about these pieces,” Detective Hrycyk said Saturday. He said that there was no sign of forced entry and that other valuable artwork and possessions had not been taken.
Mr. Weisman commissioned the paintings, known as the “Athlete Series,” from Warhol in late 1977. Each measuring 40 inches square, the paintings were all signed by the artist and by the individual sports stars, said Vincent Fremont, the exclusive sales agent for paintings and drawings at the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Warhol chronicled the project in his diaries that year. “Tom Seaver was adorable,” he wrote on July 18, 1977. “Athletes really do have fat in the right places, and they’re young in the right places.”
Still, 30 years later, the public did not see it that way. In 2007, Mr. Weisman’s set of the “Athlete Series” was the subject of an exhibition at Martin Summers Fine Art, a London gallery, where they were for sale as a group for about $28 million, said several art experts. But they did not sell.
Since then, the prices of Warhols, along with those of many other contemporary artists, have fallen. “These were sporting heroes of a particular moment,” said Brett Gorvy of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department worldwide.
While some of the works were beautifully painted, by far the standout is the portrait of Muhammad Ali. “It is truly iconic,” Mr. Gorvy said. “Even today it would still make a huge amount.” In 2007, a similar image of the boxer brought $9.2 million when it was for sale at Christie’s in New York. The rest, Mr. Gorvy said, would probably be worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars apiece.
Mr. Weisman comes from a family of celebrated collectors. His father, Frederick Weisman, a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, started buying art in the late 1940s. Over the years, he bought examples of masters like Cézanne and Picasso, de Kooning, Rothko and Warhol. Some are on view at a foundation museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Weisman’s mother, Marcia Weisman, is the sister of the billionaire Norton Simon and is also an art collector. In 2003 Richard Weisman published a book about his collection called “From Picasso to Pop.”
Even with the fame of the collection, art experts found it strange that anyone would walk off with just the “Athlete Series.”
“The Warhol market is too insular,” Mr. Gorvy said.
Tobias Meyer, international director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department, agreed.
“Stealing Warhols is a very bad idea,” Mr. Meyer said. “The art world has become so transparent, and all these works are so traceable, ultimately they become an untradeable asset.”
Detective Hrycyk said that thefts from private collections are relatively common in Los Angeles, where much of the most important art hangs on walls in the homes of wealthy studio executives and Hollywood stars.
Carol Vogel reported from New York and Solomon Moore from Los Angeles.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 13, 2009, on page A30 of the New York edition.