By Kimberly Babin
We sat down for an interview with Marlene Gregor, the widow of Artist Harold Gregor whose painting went missing nearly 30 years ago.
The value of art is intrinsic. Original works of art are more than just pretty pictures, they are important elements of expression, identity, our collective history, and cultural heritage. Yet, every year, hundreds of thousands of artworks vanish from galleries, homes, and museums - across the globe, and very few are ever returned or recovered. But who are these mysterious figures in the shadows - stealing and looting some of the world’s most valuable works of art?
One unsettling art crime cold case leaves us to ponder that question nearly 30 years later.
According to reports, it was 1994 and light snow fell, and temperatures dropped to a frigid 25 degrees in
Chicago the evening of the Gray Gallery Art Heist on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. A perfect
night, perhaps, for a cunning team of art thieves to slip into bulky winter coats – perhaps bulky enough to hide two highly valuable, but small, paintings under. But that’s just one theory.
Officials and police still don’t know if it was a team or an individual for certain, (though they
originally suspected it was two individuals), and how the highly valuable paintings slipped out undetected remains unsolved. For many, the mystery is a lingering one, with several unanswered questions remaining still. For Marlene Gregor, a watercolor artist in her own right and Harold Gregor’s widow, those questions are still turning in her mind.
It was 1994 when the heist took place, and she recalls some details and discrepancies, better than others. The theft was once deemed as a “smash and grab” art heist, as recorded by the United Press International’s UPI Archives stating that the “Thieves used the "smash and grab" technique, breaking a glass partition and making off with the two small paintings.” However, Marlene Gregor recalls being informed that it was more of a precision operation, with the glass being “strategically cut with some sort of special tool used to remove portions of the all- glass front and connected hinges of the all-glass door.” She took my notebook and drew a depiction of the gallery front and sketches of both the Picasso and Gregor piece.
Despite different accounts of how the glass was broken into, it is undisputed that the heist resulted in the theft of only two artworks: a Pablo Picasso and a Harold Gregor work - taken in tandem. The operation was swift and stealthy, with no trace of the thieves when police arrived a reported less-than 7 minutes after the silent alarm was triggered.
The Picasso painting was a 1928 work titled “Tete” and described as an abstract profile of a
woman’s head. The painting measured around 12 x 21 inches and was reportedly valued at over
$500,000 at the time of the heist. Harold Gregor’s stolen painting was also small in scale and
measured around 18 inches. Gregor’s work was a landscape piece depicting a scene from an Illinois town and titled “Early Fall, Heyworth” valued at over $10,000 at the time of the heist. Both artworks have likely increased greatly in value over time.
The Picasso is no longer missing and was returned, according to Marlene, after it strangely turned up in the back of an abandoned vehicle years later near Gray Gallery in Chicago. Yet, Gregor remains unlocated. Gregor’s work previously received much attention when it was hand selected by former president Obama for the White House during his term. The same work that was featured in the White House later resided in Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s office. Sadly, the Gregor work can only currently be found in the INTERPOL stolen art database, and has yet to be returned.