House Painter Accused of Stealing Art From NY Estate
Two precious works of art are still missing after a house painter was arrested and accused of stealing artwork, including an etching by Pablo Picasso, from a New York estate where he was hired to work.
Joselito Vega, 42, Easton, Pa., was allegedly caught on tape in an investigation, led by the Kings County District Attorney's Office, taking several art pieces from the estate of Michael Schulhof in Kings Point, N.Y.
Schulhof declined to comment to ABC News but told its New York station, WABC-TV, "Of course, you're always disappointed when you place trust in someone, and you feel the trust is violated."
Vega was working for Zimmer Painting Inc. in March 2011 at the Schulhof Estate, which holds a well-known collection of 300 works of post-war and contemporary European and American art, officials said.
After a year, the estate realized three works were missing, including "Le Fauteuil II," worth about $50,000, by Jean Dubuffet, officials said.
"The paintings were hanging on the wall," a spokesman from the Kings County DA's office said. "They had to be taken down for him to paint the walls. We believe he ran off with them."
The DA's office alleges that Vega acted alone.
The DA's office said it tracked the Debuffet painting to the Clars Auction Gallery, in Oakland, Calif. Authorities discovered that it was sold at an auction by the gallery in September 2011 for $8,500.
"We checked a registry of stolen art," Redge Martin, president of Clars Auction Gallery, said. "We wondered why someone was selling something from New York in California."
Martin said the gallery was unable to find the artwork on the registry and an expert said it was not stolen.
Vega allegedly used his ex-sister-in-law's identity, without her knowledge, to sell the Debuffet painting and receive payment for the sale of the work, according to the DA's office. Vega allegedly cashed the check from the sale in Brooklyn (Kings County), N.Y.
Detectives from the Kings County DA's office set up a sting operation April 29 to catch Vega allegedly in the act. He arrived for another job at the Schulhof estate, where works of art and hidden cameras were placed in the home in Nassau County.
Vega was captured on video allegedly stealing "Three Graces II," a $10,000 Pablo Picasso etching. He also allegedly took "Chien" by Jean Dubuffet and "Presence de Rythmes" by Yaacov Agam. The six paintings Vega is alleged to have stolen are estimated to be worth more than $100,000.
Two of the works from the first art theft, "Tuftonboro" by Frank Stella and "Flower" by Norman Lewis, have not been recovered.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to … get some leads on the other two missing pieces of artwork," Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice said, according to WABC.
Vega was indicted Monday on charges of money laundering, identity theft and grand larceny in King County, where he allegedly engaged in the illegal financial transactions. In Nassau County, where the alleged thefts occurred, the DA's office charged Vega with grand larceny in the second- and third-degree.
He is incarcerated at Otis Bantum Correctional Center in New York City. Attempts to contact his lawyer were unsuccessful. Zimmer Painting has not responded to a request for comment.
If convicted, Vega could serve up to 26 years in jail.