How Dali Expert Threw a Wrench Into the Rikers Heist Case

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In March 2003, New York City’s jail Rikers Island was the scene of an improbably crime – an art heist. A drawing by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali was stolen and investigators later came to suspect people who worked inside the jail as those responsible. 

Just over a year after the crime and as three men pleaded guilty to their part in the crime, the man who was named the alleged ringleader of the heist, Benny Nuzzo, went to trial to fight for his innocence.

During the May 2004 trial, Nuzzo’s attorney, the hotshot lawyer Joe Tacopina called former publisher and Chairman Emeritus of the Salvador Dali Research Center Alex Rosenberg to the stand as an expert in Dali’s work. Rosenberg was brought in to address the value of the stolen drawing, which prosecutors said was worth $250,000.

Under New York law, those convicted of stealing property worth less than $50,000, faced a maximum of seven years behind bars. Rosenberg said he believed the picture fell in that category, saying he determined its value was not high. 

“I was brought in for several reasons. First of all, to contest the severity of a government's charge,” Rosenberg told InsideEdition.com. “The second day the district attorney came up and we have from one of the art managers here a list of the important artists of all time and Dali's name was first and he said, ‘You tried to down value this drawing and look, it's listed first.’ I said, ‘Don't you see that the artists are listed alphabetically?’ I thought he'd kill me.”

Rosenberg also dropped a bombshell in court, saying that the piece of art that was taken was a fake. 

During his testimony, Rosenberg said he could tell by looking at images of the drawing as it hung in Rikers that it wasn’t real, noting it had no water marks from being in the basement or damage from when a coffee mug was hurled at it. 

“Remember, the people who work in prisons are usually not art collectors,” he told InsideEdition.com. “I think that the value that was placed on it was partly because it was Dali, but [also because] because the state wanted to create a major crime.”

The picture incurred damage after an inmate threw a coffee mug at it. Officials moved it to the facility's and it went on tour before returning to Rikers. It incurred further damage in a basement, court documents said.

“The photo of what was taken didn’t show for water damage,” he insisted to InsideEdition.com

Rosenberg claims there are three versions of the drawing out there – the original Dali from 1965, whatever was stolen in 2003 and what was hung up in its place the night of the heist. 

Rosenberg claimed that not even the original was worth the price tag that the government put on it and disputed an appraisal from 1998 stating it was worth over $1 million. 

“It was my job, which I did well, to prove that this drawing or whatever it was, even when real, was not worth more than $20,000,” he said. “There is no fixed value. Value varies with conditions and many other things.”

“He broke that out at trial also that this was a copy, or could have been a copy," Tacopina told InsideEdition.com. "And here's the funny part, there was no way to tell.

"The pictures of the drawing that they had were behind glass,” Tacopina continued. “And you can't do even a hypothetical assessment. There's ways to assess art. You look at it, you feel it, you touch it, you evaluate it, look for damage. If you don't have the piece of art and you only have pictures of it, it's called the hypothetical assessment. It's valid as long as you put the word hypothetical before assessment.”

After a month long trial, Nuzzo was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges

“This ranks in the top five of the most challenging case that I've ever tried from an evidentiary standpoint, for sure. This definitely ranks as my favorite case I've ever tried because it wasn't just a criminal trial, it wasn't a, he said, she said. It was a criminal trial with the focal point being Salvador Dali,” Tacopina said. 

Rosenberg says that Dali would laugh about the whole situation surrounding his drawing. “It would be a big joke to him,” he added.   

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