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A golden toilet is still at large
In this file photo taken on September 15, 2016, a fully functioning solid gold toilet, made by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, is going into public use at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Thieves have stolen an 18-karat gold toilet from an exhibition of artworks at Britain's Blenheim Palace, police said Saturday -- causing significant flooding. The fully-functioning piece by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, dubbed "America", went on show at the southern English stately home on Thursday. William EDWARDS / AFP.

by Alex Marshall

WOODSTOCK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Just before 5 a.m. Sept. 14, a fully-functioning toilet made of 18-karat gold was stolen from an art exhibition at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

There has been no trace of it since.

Police are still looking for the missing john — an artwork called “America” by Maurizio Cattelan — but, so far, they remain empty-handed. A spokesman for the force carrying out the investigation, Thames Valley Police, declined to discuss the case, except to confirm that six people had been arrested in connection with the theft, only to be released later without charge.

Police may not know what has happened to the toilet, but residents of Woodstock, a town near the palace, have plenty of theories.

Richard Jackson, a gardener, said he thought it was still on the palace grounds. The robbers probably threw it off a bridge into one of two lakes on the property, he said.

“It ain’t going to rust, is it?” he added. “You could wait a year, then get it out.”

“It’s on a building site,” said Susan Hughes, a taxi driver, “that’s my theory.” New homes are being built near the palace, she noted. “And there are diggers, dumpers, everything there.” The robbers could have made a hole for the toilet then “covered it the same night,” she added.

Martin Thomas-Jeffreys, an antiques dealer, said he was sure those theories were wrong. The toilet would have been melted down, he said. By some estimates, the gold could be worth $4 million. “Whoever did it, definitely planned it,” he said. “It’s not like slipping a tiara in your pocket, is it?”

Nobody had offered a gold toilet to his store, he added.

Others guessed that it had been flown out of Britain from a small airport about 2 miles away. Some even suggested that it hadn’t been stolen at all and that maybe Cattelan had hidden it himself, hoping to get a promotional boost from a Banksy-style prank.

“It’s a hoax,” said Jackie Blake, 72, a retiree. Cattelan “probably got it sitting somewhere to see what the reaction of us people is.”

One thing that linked the theories, said Christine Johnson, a school worker, was that nobody was taking the crime seriously. “Quite honestly, people think it’s a joke,” she said. There were even a few spray-painted imitations around the town, she added.

One of those was in Off The Hook, a fish and chip shop. Another had been in the bar of The Woodstock Arms, a local pub, until some merry patrons stole that one, too, said Ross Phillips, the pub’s manager.

Phillips said he had decided to make the replica toilet — which cost around $60 — to tease one of his customers, who worked at the palace. “My son really enjoyed painting it,” Phillips said. “My wife thought it was a ridiculous idea.”

Until Sept. 14, “America” had been installed in a wood-paneled closet just outside the bedroom where Churchill was born. Visitors could pay to use the facilities, as museumgoers in New York had been allowed to when it was on show at the Guggenheim in 2016-2017.

The night before the robbery, a party for Cattelan’s show was held at the palace; the event ended around 2 a.m. A couple of hours later, thieves broke in and ripped out the toilet, causing a minor flood. In an appeal for witnesses in October, police said that they were looking for at least two vehicles that may have been used in the getaway.

Thefts from stately homes have been increasing lately, said James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries at the Art Loss Register, a nonprofit organization that runs a database of stolen art.

On Sept. 8, the week before the gold toilet was stolen, four thieves broke into Sudeley Castle, about 30 miles from Blenheim Palace, taking items including a Fabergé gold cigarette case and jewelry that King Edward VII gave to a mistress.

Ratcliffe pointed out that thieves who steal sculptures often want the materials, not the work of art itself. In the 2000s, he said, several large bronze sculptures, including works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were stolen from parks and gardens in Britain and melted down.

“I very much doubt anyone’s stolen this because it’s art,” said Richard Ellis, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques squad who is now a consultant on art theft, referring to Cattelan’s work. Rather, he said, “It’s because it was a big lump of gold.”

It would have been melted down within 24 hours, Ellis added.

In an email, Cattelan said that he had no idea who was behind the crime. Referencing the board game Clue, he joked that “the major suspects” should be “the butler, the chef and the house owner.”

“But none of these is true,” he added.

Cattelan also said that he was not behind the work’s disappearance, despite having pulled similar pranks before. In 1996, he stole the contents of an art gallery in the Netherlands, then presented them as his own work. “It was meant to be a comment on displacement,” he said at the time, adding, “We took everything including the garbage cans.”

Cattelan said he did not expect to get the toilet back. But the piece exhibited at Blenheim was just one of three he made, so there were two more available, he said.

Since the theft, Cattelan has been taking advantage of the crime’s notoriety. In November, he appeared in an advertising campaign for Generali, an Italian insurance company looking to make inroads in the art world. In a video, Cattelan cavorts with a cutout of a gold toilet under the slogan “Great artists steal.”

At Blenheim Palace in October, on one of the final days of Cattelan’s exhibition, not everyone had given up hope of the toilet’s return. “If you do find it, I live in a caravan that could do with a new toilet,” said Kevin Power, a musician.

Laura Ahlbin said she was glad it was gone. She was American but lived locally, she said, and had found the artwork so disrespectful both to her birthplace and to that of Winston Churchill that she had decided to stay away from the palace, which she usually visits regularly. “When I heard the news, I thought, ‘Oh good, I can go back,’” she said.

But most of the visitors expressed simple amusement, or bemusement, about the crime as they looked at the blue police tape across the damaged wooden door that once led to the toilet.

Lacey Chandler, 9, visiting the exhibition with her father, summed up the feelings of many. “Why would someone steal a gold toilet?” she said. “Someone’s bum’s been on that.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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