While every bathroom is a crime scene, on occasion, this week the art world sighs and chuckles over the latest audacious act of art theft: the removal of “America” (2016), the solid gold, functioning lavatory by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which until the early morning of Saturday, September 14, was installed in a wood-paneled bathroom at Blenheim Palace — birthplace of Winston Churchill and host to Victory is Not an Option, a massive solo exhibition of Cattelan’s work. The toilet, reportedly worth £4.8 million (~$5.96 million), was torn from the fixtures that enabled visitors to the exhibit to relieve themselves into a work of art. Though I think we can all agree that the only appropriate thing to do with a solid gold art world toilet is rail lines of coke off the tank.
The Blenheim Art Foundation, unsurprisingly, failed to see either humor or irony in the situation. Founder Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill released a statement expressing shock and dismay at the theft, and a determination to work with police “to restore the artwork to the exhibition as soon as possible.” Arguably, the policy of allowing the bathroom for private use, with a closed but unlocked door guarded by an attendant, enabled the thieves sufficient time to case the joint. GEEZ MOM I NEED A MINUTE IN HERE, THIS IS PRIVATE, the thief presumably shouted, while loosening plumbing fixtures.
Blenheim Palace CEO Dominic Hare released the following press statement:
When you show the finest art to everyone, to the audience it was made for, you take a risk.
Almost always that risk is worth taking. We say that even today.
We hope against hope that we can recover this precious work of art. It is deeply ironic that a work of art portraying the American Dream and the idea of an elite object made available to all should be almost instantly snatched away and hidden from view.
We hope that the wonderful work of our dear friend Maurizio Cattelan becomes immortalised by this stupid and pointless act.
We are truly grateful for the support and work of all at Thames Valley Police.
As reported by the Guardian, Thames Valley police believe a gang of thieves using at least two vehicles were responsible for the theft and a 66-year-old man arrested on Saturday remains in police custody.
The trouble with the darkest-timeline state of the world these days is that irony and satire begin to lose their edge, when reality becomes more hyperbolic than the work presented by artists to mirror the absurdity of society. Cattelan originally installed America at the Guggenheim, in a kind of Duchampian nose-thumb to the art market … but people lined up by the tens of thousands to use it. Perhaps the art world and landed gentry of Blenheim Palace were so tickled with gold as a symbol, that they forgot about its value as a commodity — a value that is more than a significant portion of the world’s population will make in their lifetime. There is a kind of audacity to loosely guarding a literal pile of gold, based on the social pact of veneration for works of art — especially when the artist has intentionally obscured and debased the material that has cost innumerable real lives through the centuries, and continues to do so today.
But perhaps that’s too heavy a note for the endlessly hilarious potential of bathroom humor. Cattelan, for his part, seems amused by the theft, deflecting speculation that he somehow orchestrated it as a publicity stunt. At the end of the day, one must give grudging respect to anyone willing to heist a toilet — it’s honest labor in the midst of a dishonest day’s work. In this case, the old truism about plumbers might be extended to art thieves: your shit is their bread and butter.
Victory is Not an Option continues at Blenheim Palace through October 27.
Update 9/19/19 1:00pm: Thames Valley Police in London has arrested a second suspect in the theft of Maurizio Cattelan’s “America” (2016) from Blenheim Palace. A 36-year-old man from the British town of Cheltenham was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle and had been released under investigation, the police said. The first suspect, a 66-year-old man who was arrested on the day of the theft, was released on bail until October. Still unable to locate the stolen toilet, police asked the public to contact officers if they have any information on the heist.
“‘America’ was the one percent for the 99 percent, and I hope it still is,” Cattelan wrote the New York Times in an email. “I want to be positive and think the robbery is a kind of Robin Hood-inspired action.”