The Art Institute of Chicago is one of our country’s signature art museums, located on the lakefront. I lived & worked in Chicago around 1985 for a sales job, but didn’t get around to visiting the Institute until the tail end of my assignment. I decided it was a must-do while there, so one morning I walked up its broad stairs, between the lions guarding on each side, and take a tour. After walking through the lobby, I found myself being funneled into the one point of entry – a very narrow, dimly lit hallway. There were four or five paintings hung on one side, and to my amazement (and after taking a double-take) I realized that one was American Gothic, the most famous American painting, our equivalent of the Mona Lisa. It’s the one with a stern-faced farmer (holding a pitchfork) next to his grim-faced wife, in front of their plain farmhouse.
I asked the docent if it was a reproduction, and she responded so coldly that icicles dangled from every word, “we don’t have any ‘reproductions’ at The Institute!” I asked why this signature American painting was hanging in this pass-through little hallway, and she explained that The Art Institute was being renovated, so three floors were condensed to one, and they moved their most prized art to the first floor. People came from around the world to see their famous art, so they had to fit everything they could, where they could. She walked away in a huff, and I backtracked to American Gothic, just two spaces away from the lobby. Yes, this thought occurred to me:
I could pull this painting off the wall, and whether an alarm went off, or a security camera saw me, I could bolt across the lobby, out the door, and down the big stone steps, all in about ten seconds. Holding this priceless American icon painting, I could make it to my car on the street in another 5-10 seconds, throw it into my trunk and be gone in another few. It was eminently doable! Yes, I’d be a famous (or infamous) art thief, but I’d have America’s most famous painting in my possession. The only question was not if I could do this, but should I do this, and down the road (literally) what would be the consequences? And one other lingering question, what would I do with this precious painting after I stole it?
Would I sell it (for millions) to some nefarious ring of underground art collectors? And where does one find said ring? In the classifieds of an art magazine, “For sale: One painting, American Gothic (original) to highest (or first) bidder. Minimum five million dollars (U.S.) cash only, must be discreet, meeting to be arranged (street corner, Public Park or outdoor space) at agreed time. Please come alone, no firearms.” But knowing me, I would just end up driving home to my apartment in Schaumberg and hang it up on my wall. A great conversation starter if I invited a date over for a glass of wine, “You’d never guess where I got this, yes, it’s the original.” And there it would sit, until I got a very loud knock on my door.
So I chickened out. I got cold feet. I admit it. Was it worth five to ten years in an Illinois prison (which I’ve heard are not very nice)? Standing there in front of the pitch fork holding farmer and his wife, I decided not. But I could have, given the logistics; I could have pulled it off (for awhile). It was eminently doable, but it was (excuse the pun) a fork in the road that I over thought, and I choose the safer path. But shame on The Art Institute, for tempting this normally law-abiding guy with such sloppy (and disrespectful) and thoughtless placement of our most precious painting. I could have pulled this off, I’m sure I could, at least for awhile.