Stealing Rodin

Master thief, or visionary artist?

Stealing Rodin When a celebrated sculpture briefly went missing from a Rodin exhibition in Santiago, the “theft” turned out to be a provocative statement, masterminded by a precocious art student. His actions sparked a public outcry and a furious debate on the nature of art itself. This lively and perceptive documentary revisits the scene of an extraordinary incident that captured the world's attention and challenged the global art community.

One day in 2005, Chile woke up to a shocking discovery. “Breaking news from the Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago,” the news reporters informed, “Where we’re told of the theft of a valuable piece by French sculptor Auguste Rodin.” It was the first time that the art of Rodin, most famous for his bronze sculpture The Thinker, had been exhibited in Chile. “I noticed right away that a sculpture was missing,” recalls museum guard José Tralma, “I never imagined it had been stolen.” The missing piece was the Torso of Adele, one of Rodin’s most expressive works.

There were no leads. “The first thing we confirmed was that the light that was supposed to be on, was off,” says Andrés Baytelman, who investigated the case. Although there were security cameras in place, they relied on light and the gallery had been in darkness, and so no visual information was retrieved. The dearth of evidence echoed the mystery surrounding the robbery of the Mona Lisa in 1910, when Da Vinci’s most famous work disappeared for three years.

The country was in uproar, but less than a day had passed before the sculpture re-emerged in mysterious circumstances. “A young man showed up, a university student.” He was Luis Onfray, and told police that, “while taking a walk in Forest Park in Santiago… he noticed that, in a bush… was a sculpture.”

Despite the curators’ (and the country’s) relief, something didn’t quite add up. Inconsistencies in Onfray’s story led to his arrest, but it dawned that perhaps the theft had not been an act of greed, but rather was engineered to make a larger statement. “When I saw the empty podium in the Matta Gallery, among the emotions I’ve experienced in the museum, that was the most intense,” remembers Ramón Castillo, Sub-Director of the Museum at the time, “Because the image is so tremendous, that emptiness is present, the absence. My mind really went blank.”

“Loss brings back to the memory what is missing,” stated Onfray. Absence and addiction defined his personal life, and his artistic expression. “It’s not good feelings that make great literature or art,” explains art historian Didier Semin, “Transgression and art are totally compatible. They even go together.” The extraordinary events that unfolded in Chile were arguably a work of art, but featuring Rodin only as a bit player. Onfray himself declared, “I am not a thief. I am an artist.”

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