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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds Say Brazen Art Thief Escaped in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Accused art thief Luke Brugnara is on the lam after managing to escape federal custody on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued an arrest warrant Thursday, saying Brugnara had "escaped from the federal building and is currently at large."

The escape allegedly happened during a court-permitted meeting with Brugnara's attorney, Erik Babcock, at the attorneys lounge in the federal building on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.

Brugnara, who was being held at the Glenn Dyer jail in Oakland awaiting trial, had been allowed to change into street clothes and meet with this attorney at the federal building in either San Francisco or Oakland between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., according to a furlough order Alsup issued in December. "

Attorney Babcock must physically escort defendant from the lock-up facility directly to the attorney's lounge when he accepts custody," Aslup wrote. "During furlough sessions in the Oakland facility, the accused must remain in sight of and within the same room as attorney Babcock at all times."

Babcock was ordered to stand outside any restroom Brugnara should happen to use, and keep him away from cellphones, credit cards and anything that could be used as a weapon.

The order also warned Brugnara to "act in a civil manner and avoid tantrums and shouting," a reference to Brugnara's previous courtroom outbursts.

Brugnara, 51, was indicted in June 2014 on mail fraud for ordering and receiving more than $11 million worth of art and then claiming it was a gift.

The former real estate investor allegedly told an art dealer - who is not named in the indictment - that he wanted to buy several works of art for approximately $11 million for a museum he was building in San Francisco.

Though he had no income or assets, Brugnara allegedly agreed to pay $7.32 million for 16 paintings by Willem de Kooning, $3 million for an Edgar Degas sculpture, $450,000 for a painting by American realist artist George Luks, $160,000 for a drawing by Joan Miro and $145,000 for etching by Pablo Picasso.

An affidavit by FBI Special Agent Jeremy Desor quotes Brugnara's message to the dealer in March 2014. "I will buy all of the paintings and put them in my museum," Brugnara allegedly wrote, asking the dealer to send them from New York to his San Francisco home for inspection.

The art was packed into five custom crates and sent to Brugnara, but when the dealer arrived at his home, he seemed surprised to see her, telling her he was very busy and would arrange a time to open the crates and expect the artworks later.

The dealer observed that the house was nearly empty. In the meantime, the crates were stored in Brugnara's garage.

Claiming that he took the art as a gift, Brugnara later told the dealer that she would have to deal with his attorney, the complaint says. He allegedly wrote the dealer: "you freely gave me these items April 7th because you were downsizing and wanted me to have them."

Brugnara has had previous brushes with crime. In 2010, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for filing false tax returns, as well as 15 months for poaching steelhead trout.

In a December 2014 lawsuit filed in Manhattan, Certain Underwriters at Lloyd's, London identified the bronze, "La Petite Danseuse de Quartorze Ans," as the only piece still unaccounted for from the five crates of insured artwork delivered to Brugnara's home.

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