Did you steal this painting?

Art theft goes local.

click to enlarge AT A LOSS: Joseph Weinzettle holds an early sketch of his stolen painting. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
AT A LOSS: Joseph Weinzettle holds an early sketch of his stolen painting.

Missing: Bob Marley.

Last seen: January 2007, former Saffron's Restaurant, east side wall.

Wearing: Red, green and yellow oils.

It's been more than a year and a half, but Joseph Weinzettle just can't forget about his Bob Marley painting. He spent over a month on his colorful oil-on-canvas piece; it took only a night for someone to steal it.

You've probably never heard of Weinzettle and his stolen painting. Same with Darwin Leon and his two surrealist works stolen from a Tampa art gallery. Unlike high-profile thefts, such as the recent nabbing of some Andy Warhol artwork in Sweden, local artists' stolen paintings rarely receive even a mention in the local papers. The artists file police reports but know the art may never be found. In some cases, their misfortune has turned them off from showcasing their art at all.

"It was the first time, and it'll be the last time I put anything up," says Clearwater artist Syd Freifeld, whose painting of a group of San Diego children was stolen from the Mease Dunedin Hospital last year.

But sometimes, with enough attention, they get lucky, like Tampa artist Mike Parker, who recently recovered two paintings that had been missing for three months. Victimized artists like Weinzettle are hopeful for a similarly happy ending.

On a recent morning, the 42-year-old Weinzettle sits in his cramped Dunedin studio, looking through 35mm slides chronicling his artwork. Weinzettle, who teaches courses at St. Petersburg's Art Center, accepts only a few commissions each year.

In 2004, after graduate school, Weinzettle began shopping around some of his artwork to various businesses and restaurants. At the former Saffron's Restaurant on Park Street, he found a receptive owner, Edyth James. He made a verbal agreement with her to keep his artwork for sale at the venerable Caribbean restaurant. It was like a semi-permanent home for his work.

In summer 2006, he decided to paint a Bob Marley-themed piece. It seemed like a perfect fit for the restaurant, he says, and he hoped someone would buy it.

After a little research, Weinzettle came up with a design: Rastafarian flag colors layered over the reggae superstar's head, with other Rasta symbols in the corners of the painting and the Wailers band lining the bottom.

At the end of the summer, he delivered the nearly 5-foot-tall painting.

"A couple people on the staff just stopped and took the picture in," he recalls. "They really seemed to enjoy it and appreciate it there."

He gave it a $1,000 price tag.

Over the next six months, he visited the restaurant twice, just to rearrange paintings. But in January 2007, Saffron's owner James called Weinzettle and asked him to pick up his artwork. The restaurant was closing.

When he arrived, two of his paintings were gone: a detailed piece depicting the Nat Turner slave rebellion and the Bob Marley.

According to a 2007 police report, James had given the Nat Turner piece to her landlord (with the help of police, Weinzettle recovered the painting a month later). But neither James nor her landlord knew anything of the Bob Marley painting. The case is still open. (James could not be reached for comment.)

"If [the painting] had been destroyed in a storm or something, that's too bad, it's life," he says. "But in this case, it's out there and someone knows about it. It's about justice."

Artist Darwin Leon can sympathize. In January, someone snuck into the (now-closed) Galeria Leo Artzi in Tampa and stole two of his surrealist paintings of Don Quixote. Several other paintings and tools were left untouched. Leon had spent six months on each oil painting; they were valued at nearly $7,000 apiece.

"It totally destroyed me," says Leon, an art instructor at the Carrollwood Cultural Center. "I was really heartbroken. It took me months to get in front of a canvas again."

Both artists are hesitant to show their work publicly again.

"I'd be very leery about putting it in any place unless [there was] no particular value to the piece," Weinzettle says.

Tampa lawyer Suzette Marteny, who frequently lectures on legal issues surrounding artwork, advises artists to always sign a contract with any place that hangs their art.

"If I'm going to put any valuable piece of art in a coffeeshop, I would want an agreement with the owner that if it's lost or destroyed, there's some [compensation]," she says. "I know, unless you're a lawyer, nobody wants to bother with that. At first, everyone is getting along and everything is alright — until something goes wrong."

And even for work already missing, there have been success stories.

In 1997, someone stole a metal horse sculpture made by the late artist Bud Oleson from the Tampa Museum of Art. At the time, Art Keeble, director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, sent out a plea to the community to find and return it. He didn't hear anything until early this month — 10 years later — when someone e-mailed him a tip that led to the sculpture's recovery.

Weinzettle hopes he can tell a similar story one day soon.

"Maybe if a picture is out there, someone will recognize it from somewhere and contact me," he says. "Because if someone has a picture of Bob Marley, they'll want to show it off. And someone will see it."

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