Sometimes bad things happen when we’re on the road doing shows.
On Sunday March 2nd, 2014, all of my work was stolen from the trunk of my rental car as it sat parked behind the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, FL. The show had gone well and I was tired but happy. I’d gone out to dinner with friends around 6:30 pm, after we had packed up our booths. When I got back to my car around 8:45 pm, everything was gone. I didn’t find that out until I drove to my hotel and opened the trunk.
Fortunately, the thieves left me my portfolio of orders, checks and parts for special pieces. In fact, they took the portfolio out of the small carrying bag it was in and threw it back in the trunk. I opened the trunk and saw a chaotic mess of white streaked with blue.
The police said it was the work of professionals. No fingerprints were found. Besides feeling disoriented, I felt stupid for leaving my work in the car. A series of what-ifs kept running through my brain. If only I could turn the clock back a few hours...if only I'd inserted a GPS tracking device in my suitcase...if only I hadn’t gone out to dinner...if only I'd rented a better car!
The theft didn’t make sense. I wasn’t carrying gold and gems. Nothing could be melted down for profit, and selling my work would be hard. The thieves must have been targeting a gold jeweler. When they couldn’t get one, they settled for me instead. Thus I reasoned.
I went through the airport carrying only my purse, missing the bags that should be at my side, feeling like I’d lost a part of myself. For once it was easy to go through the security line. Distressingly easy.
I got home not sure what to do, unable to make decisions. I thought of getting a nice, safe, local 9-to-5 desk job. I couldn’t possibly muster the funds to buy the materials I needed to start over. I was haunted by images of the one-of-a-kind pieces I’d lost to the thieves. Pictures of them would pop into my brain at random intervals. I could see them, but I no longer had them. I had neither the materials nor the heart to reconstruct them. I felt like I was living in gap between what was and what is. I could see no way out of the gap.
News travels fast in our online community. Soon friends and colleagues were in touch, telling me not to quit, I could recover. One colleague called CERF (Craft Emergency Relief Fund) in my behalf.
Another colleague called to tell me I wasn’t alone, that she too had had all of her work stolen some years ago, probably by graduates of the “School of Seven Bells.” Her work consisted of gold and gemstones. It took a long time, she said, but she recovered, with help from others.
The School of Seven Bells supposedly exists somewhere in the Andean mountains of Columbia, South America. In it, pickpockets are thought to hone their technique until they can pick a pocket without ringing the bells attached to it. The thieves fan out across the world, preying upon jewelers and picking the pockets of ordinary people. According to one estimate, they steal hundreds of millions of dollars a year in America alone. This colleague was sure that my work had been taken by someone affiliated with the School of Seven Bells.
The same colleague also told me a story about a pearl dealer who was on his way home from a show some years ago. His drive took the better part of two days. As he neared home, sure that he was safe, he decided to get his car washed. He drove into a car wash, got out of his car, and stood at the side as the car went through. When it cleared the wash area he saw men wiping it down. Then he saw it drive away, with his entire pearl inventory, his laptop, and his orders from the show inside. He lost it all. Eventually his car was recovered, empty. Blame it on the School of Seven Bells, she said. The thieves think nothing of following a target for days, waiting for a chance.
A day or two after I got home, Cornelia Carey from CERF called to tell me that I qualified for emergency grant funds. Would I like some? I said yes, please. A check arrived within the week. I used it to order materials, as judiciously as possible. Friends and colleagues volunteered to help me make some of the pieces I needed to get through the next show, only one month away. I borrowed back a handful of one-of-a-kind pieces from good customers so my display cases wouldn’t seem so sparse. I made it through the show.
Other good things happened. A longtime friend emailed to say she was sending a check of her own. Les from CERF called to ask if I'd like him to help me obtain discounts from my major suppliers. I said yes. The suppliers said yes. One of the discounts is good for a lifetime.
Sadly, thefts continued to take place in the US during the remainder of 2014.
In May another jewelry colleague had all of her work stolen while on the road. The thieves followed her and her husband as they drove home from a show and smashed the windows in their car when they pulled over for a moment to check in at a hotel. When they came out, just a few minutes later, it was all gone.
In June another jewelry colleague had his work taken at a show in New York City. Fortunately, a few days later, police pulled over a car as it traveled south through the Carolinas. Apparently there had been some traffic violation. Inside the car they found a pillowcase stuffed with the jeweler’s work. Before long, he got it all back.
In December, after a show in Chicago, another jeweler had all of his work stolen as he drove away from the show.
A year has passed and I've developed perspective on the theft of my work. First, the thieves only took material things. They didn’t take my life or my creativity. My house didn’t burn down. No one died. Best of all, my father recovered. What the thieves took, my colleagues and friends gave back.
Things are back to normal. I no longer have flashbacks to the beautiful one-of-a-kinds I lost or to the moment of opening the car trunk. I have new one-of-a-kinds now. If I rent a car, I make sure it has a serious security system. I upgraded my home security system to the highest possible level. I’m cautious 24-7 without being paranoid.
CERF knows we’re vulnerable. It teaches us to take precautions both in the studio and on the road. It helps fund us when disaster strikes, and checks in on us in the following months.
Please visit the CERF website to see other artists who have received help after thefts, natural disasters or fires. If you're an artist yourself, take a look at CERF's "Studio Protector."
CERF is a career saver, some would say a life saver.
If you can make even a small donation to CERF this year, please do. It won’t go to some bloated administration. It will go to a real live artist at a moment of crisis. Click here for the donation page of CERF's website. Even $10.00 will help.
If you’re a craft show artist, please consider sharing a story from your life on the road or in your studio. David Bacharach and I are gathering the stories until the end of September, 2015. Assuming we get enough stories, we’ll publish them in print and digital formats, hopefully in February, 2016 in a volume entitled CraftsPEOPLE: In Their Own Words.
Michael Monroe, longtime craft advocate and former curator of the Renwick Gallery, will contribute the preface. For more information, please click here. All proceeds from sales will go to CERF.
A model wearing one of the pieces that was stolen on March 2, 2014, the "Alhambra" Necklace, my first cantilevered necklace structure. The beads on the reverse side are bright red. Fortunately, a week before the theft, this photo was taken by Larry Sanders of Sanders Visual Images. If you see this piece out there in the world, please let me know immediately.