Art thief flies under the radar at Juneau airport

An piece of Alaska Native art on display at Juneau International Airport was stolen last week, a theft that took place under the eyes of airport security, baffling the artwork’s owner.

 

“In a public spot like that you might expect it to be scratched up or something, but not actually taken off the wall,” said Richard Poor, who loaned the piece to the airport about 10 years ago.

The colorful silkscreen painting of a bald eagle — a reference to the Tlingit Eagle Clan — on a hand-carved yellow cedar plaque had been hanging on a wall alongside similar pieces in a first-floor waiting room at the end of the old wing of the airport.

Airport employees noticed it was missing last Thursday and reported it to the Juneau Police Department, said Marc Cheatham, deputy airport manager and airport security coordinator.

“To be honest, we have a lot of travelers that come through Juneau and somebody might have seen it and said, “I want to have this in my home,” or “I think maybe it’s worth some money,” and to take it to a pawn shop,” Cheatham said.

Neither this art piece, which was valued at about $125, nor the others on the wall were in cases or affixed with an alarm. They hung from nails on the wall. It’s not known if video cameras captured the theft.

Cheatham called such a theft rare, especially given the heavy surveillance and police presence at the airport. JPD is in charge of security in portions of the airport not secured by the Transportation Security Administration. He said the location of the art, on the far left side of the wall, close to a corner, may have played a role in the act.

“Why did they take one and not all of them?” he wondered aloud. “Maybe they thought because it’s in a corner they wouldn’t be seen or it’s out of visual sight of people that are walking around.”

The silkscreen may not have a lot of monetary value, but it holds sentimental value for Poor, who was good friends with the artist, Jim Osborne. Osborne and his wife, May, were born and raised in Hoonah and lived in Juneau for many years before returning to their hometown. Osborne died in the late 1980s, and his wife has also died. Poor and Osborne worked together to create their signature silkscreen art pieces of Native images on cedar.

Now retired at 68, Poor used to work with Osborne at the Department of Highways, now the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. He bought the piece, and its sister — a silkscreen painting of a raven, a reference to the Tlingit Raven Clan — at a sale some time ago, he said. The sister piece is still on display.

Poor has made a point to share the artwork he owns with others so it can be enjoyed by more people. He owns multiple pieces that are on display at the airport.

“We get a lot of small community traffic, especially from the villages, and I thought it’d be nice to have a little bit of their artwork on the walls at the airport,” he said, adding, “If you store it, nobody enjoys it, but if you can get it out there, then people do enjoy it.”

Airport officials said they are determined to get the artwork back.

“We’re sad that it’s gone, but obviously we’re going to do our diligence to find out who did it and hopefully recover it,” Cheatham said.

Poor hopes they do. But if they don’t?

“You kind of hope that somebody will return it, but if they don’t, I hope they enjoy it and don’t destroy it because it is a nice piece.”

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