Among the people who came to inspect the condo for sale was a man who dressed as if he were a Greek Orthodox priest. The priest returned again and again to see the property, and attempted to befriend the viscount. He was most interested in the artwork.
"It was a little too insistent," Alvarez remembers, speaking by telephone from his home in Spain. "I started to get nervous about that, and I mentioned to him that all of the artwork was connected with contact switches to the alarm system--which, in fact, they were not."
The theft resembled a script from the 1960s TV series It Takes a Thief, in which Robert Wagner played a suave and sexy international cat burglar of exaggerated talents. Sometime between December 13 and 19, 1983, burglars hid in a tiny electrical closet next to Alvarez's apartment and bored a hole through 14 inches of reinforced concrete behind the medicine chest in the apartment's guest bathroom. Then they slithered through a remarkably tiny hole, found their way through the dark apartment (the electricity was turned off because the viscount was in Spain), and sliced the painting right out of its frame.
"The people who did it or had it done must have known what they were looking for," says Alvarez, "because there were other things in the apartment that were as valuable as the original painting was." On the same walls, Alvarez maintains, were two original pencil drawings by Salvador Dali and a pastel by Renoir.
Nancy Carter, who was Alvarez's real estate agent, discovered the theft on December 21, while showing the apartment. The empty frame hung mockingly in the living room. She called the police, and though the investigating officers searched the premises, they never bothered to open the door to the guest bathroom, and couldn't figure out how the thieves had gotten into the apartment.
A day later, Carter got a phone call from the maid who cleaned the condo once a week.
"Is Mr. Alvarez having work done?" she asked. "There sure was a mess in the bathroom, but don't worry, I cleaned it up."
Carter called the cops again, showed them the hole in the wall and marveled that anyone could fit through an opening so tiny. The police assured her that the human body is very pliant.
A week later, Alvarez called from Spain and told the police that the painting was a copy of no value.
"Complainant states that he does not want to pursue this matter and will not come to the U.S.," the police report stated. "In view of the above, request that this case be closed."
The real "La Mujer" was reportedly locked away in a vault. The copy didn't reappear until 1989, six years later.
According to Detective Joseph Keenan of the New York Police Department, art burglaries are rare because artworks are so hard to dispose of. Most stolen art is simply shoplifted from art galleries, and less than 10 percent of it is ever recovered, partly because police departments have more pressing concerns to throw budgets at, and partly because of the closed and confidential nature of the clandestine art world.
"Let's say you stole a tractor-trailer full of VCRs," Detective Keenan posits. "You'd have no trouble getting rid of them. But I know some very professional-type burglars who wouldn't do an art job because they don't have the connections. It would be impossible for them to sell it."
The major markets for the Picasso would be overseas. In fact, the cops had someone specific in mind. "At one point, the police told us this probably was a robbery that had been commissioned by someone who collected Picassos and lived on an island somewhere in Greece," says Alvarez. Alvarez thought immediately of the Greek Orthodox priest who had doted over the apartment and its art. Nancy Carter, the real estate agent, had tried to look him up, but couldn't find him anywhere. She and Alvarez assumed he had been casing the apartment, especially since he disappeared after the burglary. "He was a complete fraud. I know he didn't steal the painting himself," Carter says, thinking back to the hole cut in the wall and to the priest's considerable girth. "I don't care what the police say, the human body is not that pliable."
Carter thought of the priest again several years later, in 1989, when New York State Police investigators came to visit. "Evidently, there were a couple of dead bodies up there [in upstate New York], and one of them had the clipping of the newspaper about the Picasso in his wallet," Carter says. She and Alvarez wondered if someone had been paid back for bungling the job and stealing a worthless painting. When contacted by New Times, however, the New York state trooper in charge of that investigation denied any such body was found, and he refused to comment on a report he made to the FBI regarding an arrested fugitive who also had the New York Times clipping in his wallet, even though the clipping was an addendum to the report.