Artwork, stolen without a trace, turns up 7 years later

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Artwork, stolen without a trace, turns up 7 years later
Benjamin Creme, Within the Gates, 2009. Edition #101/350 through #350/350. Lithograph, 28" x 16 1/4". Photo: LAPD.

by Jaclyn Peiser

LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Seven years later, Michael Flaum still remembers the shock when he opened his storage locker in Los Angeles.

“It was completely empty,” Flaum said, recalling that day in August 2012. “It’s very traumatic.”

Inside had been more than 2,300 signed and numbered prints by British artist and mystic Benjamin Creme that were valued at over $800,000. Flaum had published Creme’s work and was also a close friend.

“For two months afterward, I could still see when I opened the locker and it was completely empty,” Flaum said. “It sort of felt like when you get into a car accident and you have this image in your brain replaying.”

Despite the efforts of the Commercial Crimes Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI, the case went cold not long after the theft was discovered.

Until recently.

On Sept. 25, Detective Steven Franssen of the Commercial Crimes Division got a call from a police station in San Fernando, California. He was told that a woman had showed up with the prints in her car and wanted to turn them over to the authorities.

“This is not normal,” Franssen said in an interview.

The woman, whose name was not released, said she had found more than 1,300 prints in a pile of items she inherited a few years ago from a deceased relative, Franssen said. She said she had taken them home and forgotten about them.

It was only a few weeks ago, Franssen said, that the woman decided to go through the items and noticed the art. In doing a Google search to learn the value of the works, the woman discovered that the prints were listed as stolen, she told police. She immediately loaded them into her car and drove to her local police station.

It is unclear how the woman’s relative obtained the prints. She told the detective that her family member was gifted the art, but she did not know from whom.

About a week ago, Franssen called Flaum to tell him that most of the artwork that had been stolen from his locker was recovered. About 1,000 prints are still missing.

“I thought it was a hoax,” Flaum said of the call. “I was just so happy. It was so unexpected.”

Detectives returned the signed prints to Flaum on Monday.

Among the recovered works were prints titled “Flame-Coloured Deva,” “Polarity” and “Soul Infusion.” Flaum plans to spend the next few weeks going through them to check for any damage. The majority, he said, are in good shape.

Flaum, who didn’t own the artworks but oversaw their printing and facilitated their sales, said he would return the prints to Creme’s estate in London. The 2,300 prints were worth $800,000 at the time they were stolen but are likely worth more today, Flaum said.

Creme, who died in 2016 at 93, was born in Scotland and started painting at age 13. At 16 he dropped out of school to focus on his art, which consumed him day and night, according to the Benjamin Creme Museum.

Inspired by modernism, Creme was known for his abstract expressionist work, employing vibrant colors and geometric shapes.

Although he defined himself as an artist first, Creme was also an unconventional spiritual leader and a student of esotericism.

Creme claimed to have received a prophecy in 1959 from one of Christ’s close disciples, he said in an interview. Creme said he was told his mission was to spread the teachings of Maitreya, whom he described as a combination of the Jewish messiah, the Christian resurrected Christ, the Muslim Imam Mahdi, the Hindu Krishna and the fifth Buddha. The Maitreya, he said, would arrive soon and reveal himself.

He believed the Maitreya, also known as the “World Teacher” and “Head of our Spiritual Hierarchy,” would bring peace, equality and justice to the world. Creme gained a modest following and traveled around the world giving lectures. He wrote 17 books, which included his artwork on the covers, and he started the Share International Foundation, which publishes a magazine and arranged Creme’s speaking engagements. He also developed a new meditation called Transmission Meditation.

Flaum, a follower of Creme who also practices his meditation method, said the artist did not accept money from his spiritual endeavors, sending it all to his foundation. But the prints became a source of income, Flaum said. Creme’s buyers were often also his followers.

When the theft of the art from Flaum’s locker was discovered in 2012, he said, Creme was surprised, but wasn’t worried about the lost business. Years later, not long before Creme died, Flaum visited the artist at his home in London and brought up the missing work.

“He said ‘They’re probably at the bottom of the ocean by now,’” Flaum said. “He had written it off. Ben was not into material things.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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