Artsy High Jinks

Tim Tate
Artist Tim Tate triumphantly holds up his rocket after paying the $10,000 ransom in Monopoly bills. (Amy Argetsinger -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Do you have the money?" Tim Tate asked as we headed out on our mission under the cover of darkness Tuesday, and a little shiver went down our spine. Our first ransom drop!!!

We weren't sure what -- if anything -- was going to happen that night. All we knew was that Tate had to make the drop ($10,000 in Monopoly currency, unmarked bills) at exactly 11 p.m., in the lap of the Albert Einstein statue on Constitution Avenue. Those were the demands included in the eerie package we got last week.

What would happen? Would Tate, a D.C. artist, get his exquisite glass sculpture back? . . . Would we come face to face with the mysterious letter-writer known only as "The Collector"? . . . Should we have called police?

Flashback: Last month we told you about the mysterious disappearance of a $1,500 sculpture from the Artomatic show in Crystal City -- an etched glass "reliquary" containing a whimsical rocket ship that its creator had dubbed "The Rapture." Days after the opening of the eclectic art show, visitors noticed that nothing remained next to its nameplate except two holes in the wall -- you know, as if it had been raptured up, hahaha.

Tate shrugged off the loss, and that might have been the end of the story. Until last week, when we here at The Reliable Source received the ransom demand from "The Collector." To prove he had the artwork, he had enclosed a photo of the rocket in front of the previous day's newspaper. And, in the creepiest touch, he enclosed the actual top of Tate's original sculpture -- a piece of red glass shaped like a flame.

Was Tate really going to go through with this? "I wouldn't miss this for the world!" he chuckled. Awesome: Could we come along?

We met Tate at his downtown loft. The director of the Washington Glass School is a burly, garrulous guy, kind of a Drew Carey-but-artsy type. He described what "The Rapture" was about. "It's my idea of heaven," he said. "A giant spaceship takes you to a moon of Saturn that looks like the 1939 World's Fair."

He was thrilled to get the flame back: "That part took the longest to make." He said that if he could get the rocket ship he'd use the two pieces to make a new sculpture and call it "The Flight of the Phoenix."

Everyone has been sharing theories about the heist. There's the "jealous glass rival" theory, which Tate's not buying. Others, mindful of Tate's knack for publicity, just wink at him and whisper, "You're a genius!" Tate denies he had anything to do with the disappearance. His own theory: "Someone knocked it over, it broke, and they got embarrassed," but then later decided to mine the fragments for a delicious stunt.

Tate had no problem collecting the ransom. His glass students deluged him with Monopoly bills, and the folks at Artomatic pledged to match their contributions over the weekend with an equivalent amount of board-game bills. He let us carry the money as we drove down to the Mall. That was cool.

There was a warm breeze stirring the trees at Potomac Park and a couple of young tourists taking photos of Einstein when we arrived at 10:50 p.m. Tate found a notch on the physicist's bronze knee and stuck the envelope of play money in it. "Now what?" he wondered. We sat on a bench and waited.

It was still a few minutes before 11, which is why we were so startled when a young man -- baseball cap on his dark hair, bandana covering his face -- suddenly vaulted from behind the statue.

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