In February of 1965 Salvador Dalí was invited to visit a Rikers Island prisoner art program by longtime correction commissioner Anna M. Kross. The wily reform commissioner appealed to the artist’s thirst for publicity by promising a high-profile visit under the banner “Salvador Dalí Goes to Prison.” When the appointed day arrived, however, Dalí had fallen ill. Unable to fare on the frigid ferry ride that transit to Rikers required in the days before the Buono Bridge, and with the press impatiently awaiting his descent in the hotel lobby below, Dalí seized a pencil and some India ink and got to work.
Within two hours he had produced “The Crucifixion of Christ,” an abstract though recognizable likeness of Christ on the cross, spattered in red blood, his head bowed, awaiting deliverance from torturous punishment. It’s tempting to imagine the image as a poignant reflection on the injustice of incarceration, told through the allegory of the tortured Christ panting the wan prayer: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Alternatively, however, as one Dalí biographer later remarked, the surrealist master “was certainly somebody who could dash off a crucifixion when the need arose.”
In any case, satisfied with his work, Dalí dedicated the drawing to “the dinning [sic] room of the prisoners, Rikers Ysland [sic]” and deputized a friend to deliver it to the prisoners in his place. The drawing, though rudimentary, clearly bears the mark of the master’s touch. “It is a bird’s nest of dark lines,” a critic later wrote of the three-by-five-foot piece, “indecipherable at first glance. Then the cross comes clear, strong and clean and square. Then a man’s bloodshot eye, glaring through a tangle of hair, possibly thorns. Then blood or maybe just a stain [from its subsequent tenure in the prisoners’ dining hall] dripping down the long, ravaged body.”
Like all matters big and small on Rikers Island, the origins of the Dalí drawing were soon forgotten amid the banal and terrifying humdrum of life on a twenty-four-hour penal colony. “The Crucifixion of Christ” hung anonymously in a prisoners’ dining hall at the Correctional Institution for Men (known today as the Eric M. Taylor Center, or EMTC) for sixteen years, until an incarcerated art critic pummeled it with a coffee cup, smashing its glass casing and permanently staining the paper beneath. Removed from the dining hall, the work subsequently spent some time in mothballs, briefly featured in a gallery exhibit on prison art, and eventually found its way to a staff corridor of EMTC because, as one warden later rationalized, “prisoners couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t appreciate it, and they thought some crazy person put it there.”
Hanging in an obscure corridor, unseen by practically anyone, least of all prisoners, the artwork once more slipped quietly into the island’s memory hole. And there it would remain, save for the faint murmuring, among the few guards who beheld it on a daily basis, of its mythical price tag.
“Wouldn’t it be funny to take it?” Assistant Deputy Warden Benny Nuzzo polled a group of colleagues and subordinates gathered in the EMTC commissary in October of 2002. Like most jokes, this was simply tentatively-proffered truth-telling. Nuzzo planned to steal the drawing, and was recruiting accomplices. Thanks to his “joke” Nuzzo enlisted fellow assistant deputy warden Mitchell Hochhauser, and by February the duo had recruited Timothy Pina and his carpool buddy and Gregory Sokol, two captains who could be stationed in the hallway the artwork called home.
The plan Nuzzo masterminded was an ornate cloak-and-dagger escapade. The high-ranking quartet orchestrated a late-night fire drill, to be announced by Hochhauser, in order to distract the guards working within sight of the Dalí. If any guards failed to vacate the corridor, as ended up occurring, the captains could simply order them off by citing their superior rank, as they ended up doing. The captains were then free to use Nuzzo’s key to open the locked case, remove the drawing, and replace “The Crucifixion of Christ” with a forgery Nuzzo had composed based on several months of reconnaissance and some surreptitious Polaroid photos. Nuzzo, who would direct the whole operation, could then spirit the artwork off the island in the trunk of his SUV. Once off the island, Nuzzo anticipated selling the artwork for $500,000, $400,000 of which he would split with fellow assistant deputy warden Hochauser, and the remaining $100,000 he would divide between their subordinates Sokol and Pina.
The heist itself went off more or less without a hitch. In spite of this – or more accurately, because of it – the theft of “The Crucifixion of Christ” soon earned a place in the colorful annals of art theft history not simply for its peerless status of occurring within a prison, but more broadly for its sheer ineptitude.
It turned out Nuzzo had laid the perfect plan, save for one detail: the forgery failed to fool anyone. From its immediate discovery by a pious guard who prayed daily to “The Crucifixion of Christ” and therefore knew the original quite well, a consensus quickly spread across EMTC that the artwork hanging on the wall that morning was not the same one that had hung there the day before. “It looks like the painting has been replaced by a copy,” a DOC spokesman reported. “That appears to be the case based on a consensus of nonexpert opinion, people who work near the painting and see it day in and day out.”
This opinion needed not be “expert.” Nuzzo’s forgery was, for starters, comprised of different coloration and different proportions than the original, striking the observer immediately as brighter and otherwise just different. It had moreover been composed with different materials; instead of India ink on paper, it was oil paint on canvas – and canvas of a different size than the original drawing. In terms of quality, witnesses described the forgery as appearing to have been crafted by a child, and one lacking artistic talent, even for a child. Worst of all, Nuzzo’s forgery was affixed to the wall with staples instead of its gold-gilded frame, which had simply vanished. In its place, a new “frame” had been lazily painted directly onto the canvas. It wasn’t even gold.
“There’s no question,” an investigator concluded, “that the real one is in the wind.” A DOC spokesman put a finer point on it: “What’s there ain’t the real thing.” This unanimous sentiment likely did not come as a complete shock to all conspirators. “Anybody who comes up here is definitely going to see that this is a duplicate,” Sokol later recalled telling Nuzzo, who was nonetheless satisfied with the forgery and gave it his stamp of approval. Nuzzo’s fellow assistant deputy warden, Hochhauser, agreed with Nuzzo that the forgery would suffice, quieting all dissent. The skeptical Sokol, for his part, complied with his superiors.
As the embarrassing story spread, investigators turned up the heat on the tiny circle of Rikers staff who could have carried out the heist. Pina flipped immediately, implicating Sokol, who himself began to cooperate with the state, implicating the others. As the final insult, the irreplaceable artwork, dedicated to the prisoners of Rikers Island by Salvador Dalí, was by all accounts destroyed by Nuzzo in a blind panic. In the aftermath, three of the four conspirators were convicted, and all four were fired. Despite the testimony of his co-conspirators and considerable circumstantial evidence, Nuzzo rejected a plea bargain, and opted instead for a jury trial, in which he was miraculously found not guilty. He was nonetheless fired, after a search of his mother’s Bushwick home for the missing artwork discovered a trove of office supplies stolen from Rikers Island.
The resulting media coverage made light of thieves as a quartet of hopelessly inept bunglers, ill-suited for a life of crime – in contrast, of course, to those they guard. The admittedly droll affair became a citywide punchline. “Rikers Island just got a little less surreal,” quipped the New York Daily News in an article subtitled “It’s Goodbye, Dalí.” The ordinarily staid New York Times took to its own headlines to dub the plot “Far from a Masterpiece.” The city had a good chuckle and then, like the drawing itself, the story vanished.
In recent years, however, with the proliferation of online content farms and the increased notoriety of Rikers Island, the case of the Dalí heist has resurfaced episodically in clickbait article after rehashed clickbait article, recounted over and over in nearly identical detail. (In all fairness, as I can attest, it’s a fun one to write.) Even when told well, as James Fanelli of Esquire accomplished in 2018 return to the caper that featured interviews with principal characters and oodles of juicy new details, the story remains a mere object of curiosity, devoid of context, and offered up as an entertaining chaos yarn somewhere between the Coen Brothers and the Marx Brothers. But beyond the shopworn trope of “stupid crooks” with which writers are all too willing – though with no shortage of evidence – to frame the story, a simple question has never been satisfactorily addressed: How on Earth did they expect to get away with it?
I find this neglected question to be illuminated by an unlikely source: an extensive 2014 report by the US Department of Justice (DOC) on the systematic and long-term guard violence against adolescent prisoners, including at the facility from which the Dalí was stolen, and the considerable manipulation of official records that accompanies this violence. This report is most famous for chronicling the island’s longstanding “culture of violence,” and played an important part in what became the zeitgeist favoring the closure of Rikers Island for good. It also helps explain why Nuzzo and company were comfortable enough to risk their lucrative careers switching the work of a master painter with an apparent finger painting.
As part of this “culture of violence,” the report found adolescent prisoners to be not only regularly assaulted by brutal guards, but subsequently told to “hold it down,” meaning to not report the assault or to seek medical attention that would create documentation. When their injuries are so serious as to require medical attention, assaulted prisoners are instructed to report “slip and fall” accidents in official paperwork, which the DOJ found to be widespread. This obfuscation, which the DOJ found ran up and down the chain of command, functions not just to protect individual guards from charges of assault, but to generally keep the island’s quantified instances of violence down, which is of keen interest to its bureaucrats at the top covetous of favorable statistics.
The DOJ also found that the formally-prohibited practice of punching prisoners, including in the face, is nonetheless widespread among Rikers guards. In their subsequent paperwork, punches are rhetorically recast as sanctioned “control holds,” or described as “guiding” detainees to the floor. Such “use of force” reports (itself a bureaucratic euphemism) regularly state that the responding guard was assaulted “out of nowhere” by prisoners. This narrative is almost always upheld, even in the absence of any injury on the part of the guard, and sometimes against considerable evidence that the guard violence was unprovoked – including testimony by prisoners. Moreover, guards cynically utter the phrase “stop resisting” as they assault prisoners, in order to justify assault as a response to prisoners allegedly “resisting” more peaceful forms of coercion. The DOJ found the phrase “stop resisting” features prominently in “use of force” reports.
The DOJ also found that the creative writing process underlying these reports is not done in secret by individual rogue guards, but is instead a common and communal act, the product of concerted efforts conducted out in the open. Reports made by multiple guards who witness and partake in violent incidents are often written in identical language. This indicates not only a widespread practice of conspiring to get a story straight before putting it down on paper, but also a lack of concern that this process will be detected by superiors. Even the existence of contradictory video evidence – when not “lost” or compromised by a camera conveniently pointed away from violent act at a strategic moment, as often happens – is sometimes not enough to discredit the guards’ stories as these accounts move up the chain of command. In the rare case that a red flag is raised and superiors cannot turn a blind eye to the patent falsehoods on paper, the guards usually don’t have too much to worry about. Instances of censure for violence typically amount to a “re-training,” consisting of some seminars and video screenings.
Throughout this process, captains and assistant deputy wardens like Nuzzo, Hochhauser, Pina, and Sokol play a key role in sanctioning, and sometimes crafting, the alternative reality that becomes the official story of guard violence against prisoners. The DOJ report details how “use of force” reports make their way up the chain of command uncontested, no matter how questionable, and are essentially rubber stamped by the highest authorities on the island. Almost no investigation is ever mustered, absent considerable external pressure. The word of a guard who has used violence against a prisoner, no matter how absurd, is almost as good as truth at the moment its scrawled down on paper. By the time it gets to the top, it becomes ordained as nothing short of God-given truth, even when significant conflicting evidence is available. The result is the systematic institutional acceptance, at face value, of improbable and sometimes outright ridiculous stories which are at times contradicted by empirical evidence.
In light of the DOJ reports and other accounts of how the books are cooked on Rikers Island, the case of the Dalí art heist seems less like the sort of tragicomic tale of “stupid crooks” so amusing to tabloid news consumers, and becomes instead a vivid portrait of how reality and truth are constructed by state power to cover up traumatic violence meted out against powerless people. After all, if a captain says a punch in the face is a “control hold,” and a deputy warden can dismiss video evidence in favor of incoherent account offered by an assaultive guard, then surely four of such high-ranking Rikers officials, working together, can claim that a poorly-conceived forgery of a Dalí is in fact an original Dalí, and have that be the final word. And if the frame is missing, so what. It never existed.
It’s telling that when the forgery failed to deceive, the four thieves went into a panic and had no idea what to do. They were in the throes of a new experience; it had likely never occurred to them that what they decided would constitute reality would be questioned, especially by their underlings. Even Sokol, who saw the forgery for the failure that it was, took comfort that his superiors could cloak it in the usual mantle of bullshit behind which they were all accustomed to hiding. The subsequent unraveling of their plot tells us almost nothing about their aptitude for crime, for which countless Rikers officials have distinguished themselves over the years. Instead, it tells us much about the dangerous malleability of reality itself in the violent maw of Rikers Island and all institutions of human caging, rotten beyond all reform.
Fanelli, James. “The Great Rikers Island Art Heist.” Esquire, October 11, 2018.
Harden, Blaine. “Framed and Forlorn At Rikers; Coffee-Stained Dalí Awaits a New Chance Among the Prisoners.” New York Times, March 20, 2001.
Marzulli, John and Tracy Conor. “Rikers Art Theft: It’s Goodbye, Dalí.” New York Daily News, March 2, 2003.
Sauly, Susan. “A Dalí Vanishes From Rikers Island.” New York Times, March 2, 2003.
Tanner, Robert. “Salvador Dalí Original Hangs in N.Y. Rogues Gallery.” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1998.
United States Department of Justice. CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island. New York: DOJ, 2014.
von Zielbauer, Paul. “Art Too Tempting at Rikers; Plot to Steal a Dalí Was Far From a Masterpiece.” New York Times, October 4, 2003.
Weiss, Murray. “Laughing Art-ily—Rikers Dalí Theft Began as a Joke.” New York Post, September 30, 2003.