Erin Cone, a Santa Fe artist, received a suspicious message through her website sometime in 2019.
“I was lucky enough to find one of your paintings by the name of stasis,” the message read. “It’s truly a wonderful piece but I was told it was a piece that was involved in a violent crime or stolen or something on the lines of that and I would like to talk to you about this for the simple fact of you being the original painter.”
Around the time Cone received the message, Arthur Roger, a gallery owner in New Orleans, received a strange phone call. The caller wanted to know the value of several paintings by Nicole Charbonnet, a Louisiana-based artist Roger represents. He later learned the paintings had been stolen.
“It was one of the most bizarre phone call interactions I’ve ever had,” Roger said. “I’ve been in this business long enough to develop a sense of when things were off and don’t feel right originally. … I spoke to them twice before [Charbonnet] told me about the theft.”
Charbonnet and Cone’s paintings were stolen from a trailer in a Dallas parking lot in March 2019 while being shipped from Santa Fe to Louisiana. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $8,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the theft.
“We still are looking for more tips,” said Frank Fisher, an FBI spokesman based in Albuquerque, said of the investigation.
The works were valued at over $80,000. But with artist signatures and digital footprints, they’re difficult if not impossible to sell for anything close to that, said Roger, who has been a gallery owner for 42 years.
“It’s a sport,” he said. “Paintings have labels from the gallery and are signed and archived on the internet. It’s hard to sell, especially when people are looking for it.”
Perhaps that’s why the thieves who stole the trailer in Dallas appeared to try to ransom the paintings back to the artists.
Charbonnet painted five of the works that were stolen — Black No. 5, Cowboy, Deer, Kapow and Pattern. They had been on display at Victory Contemporary in downtown Santa Fe, but the gallery shipped them back to her after they didn’t sell.
Cone said her painting was being shipped by a dealer, whom she declined to name, when it was stolen.
Charbonnet sued Victory Contemporary as well as shipping company Santa Fe 2 U Delivery for half the value of the work, which was the amount she would have received if they sold.
She settled out of court with the shipping company for around $40,000.
In court, the shipping company argued delivery of the paintings was impossible due to the unforeseen theft. The company was operated by Stu Dickson, Dominique Boisjoli-Dickson and Timothy Loutzenhiser of Santa Fe, who each could not be reached for comment through their attorney.
Charbonnet likes to superimpose images on top of one another. She says it takes about a month to finish a painting, and her prices have steadily risen over her career from around $500 per painting to around $10,000.
“I’d like to have the paintings again,” Charbonnet said. “Maybe they’ll turn up some day.”