A brush with crime: Art goes missing

Mon dieu! High crime has hit high society.

Some scoundrel boosted a French painting during a recent Bastille Day party at Huff Harrington Fine Art. Whoever pinched "Red Sail Against Clearing Sky," an oil on board piece by Christian Nepo, blended right in with the crowd of wine-sipping arts patrons.

"It's creepy," said co-owner Ann Huff, who has yet to break the news to the artist. The gallery's fans are aghast at the "Thomas Crown Affair"-type caper, while its owners feel violated by the theft and sad at the loss.

"It was very luminescent," Huff said mournfully. "Incredible detail."

To many artists and patrons, the theft seems incredible ... period.

"It's shocking," said Nancy Franke, whose work hangs in the gallery. "It's like stealing from friends. Huff Harrington is a business, but more like a friend's home. I find it amazing that this could happen."

About 150 people attended the July 14 event over a period of several hours. The gallery, just off Roswell Road near a busy Publix shopping center, is fortified with security features —- a chime sounds whenever the front door opens, for example. But the painting, about the size of a business envelope, was displayed on an easel in a corner, close to the front door.

Rosa Lord was standing in the kitchen when Huff came in and asked if anyone had seen the piece.

"What a terrible thing, in a group of people who seem to be their friends," Lord said. "Ann always puts on such nice parties. She always offers you a glass of wine. There's always plenty of food. It's like her home. It is a signal. You must be careful. You never know."

Indeed, Buckhead is not exactly crime-free lately. Ask anyone who sells pricey blue jeans. But filching artwork seems even more sinister, said artist Virginia Parker.

"I want my paintings to find good homes," said Parker, who has pieces at Huff Harrington. "Art ending up in the hands of a petty crook is like having a beloved pet kidnapped by a product-testing laboratory."

Since the heist, folks have been buzzing about possible culprits. The guy snapping pictures with his cellphone camera? (Too obvious.) The lady with the big purse? (Lots of women carry big purses.) The man in the big, flowing shirt? (Hmmm.) Huff and Harrington reported the crime but know there's probably little the cops can do unless the thief is discovered selling or displaying the painting, which had been listed at $975.

"It's a really bad feeling," said Huff, noting there will be a security guard at the gallery's next party on Sept. 24. In addition to its regular exhibit soirees, Huff Harrington often opens its doors to charity, hosting events for organizations including Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Susan G. Komen breast cancer research foundation and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"They're so wonderful," said party guest and patron Doris Demicco. "We've bought some things from them and have been very happy. They'll let you take things home to see how you like it. Maybe that's what [the thief] was doing. He just forgot one detail."