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Artist takes creative view after theft of sculptures

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; B08

Bronze sculptures stolen from a Bethesda museum and vandalized were reportedly worth about $90,000. The thief allegedly sold them to a scrap dealer for $150.

The artworks are back at the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum, after a worker at Montgomery Scrap in Rockville realized he had bought stolen goods. But most were "damaged beyond repair," Montgomery County police said Wednesday.

Officers were called to the museum Monday morning after five sculptures were discovered missing. Four were damaged as they were stolen from the garden area of the museum, at 10001 Old Georgetown Rd. Two other damaged works were left behind. Only one of the 40-pound sculptures escaped harm.

The artworks apparently were stolen late Friday or early Saturday, and someone sold them Saturday to the scrap company. An employee called police.

The museum is a project of Dennis Ratner, chief executive of the Vienna-based Ratner Cos., which runs businesses including Hair Cuttery and Salon Cielo, and his cousin Phillip, a sculptor who decades ago created the pieces that were stolen. Among the works: a representation of Noah's Ark and a bronze of the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

Phillip Ratner, 73, said he was shocked by the theft and vandalism but sees the destruction as an opportunity.

"I'm not devastated. We can put them back together," he said. "My greatest joy is creating."

Officers issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for Daniel Conticchio, 27, of the 4500 block of Ninth Street NW on five counts of theft, among other charges. No arrests had been made.

Police also cautioned that thieves are targeting art made of semiprecious metals for their salvage value.

"It would be nice if it didn't happen, but we did learn some valuable lessons about the world," said Phillip Ratner, who has sculptures at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the museum's Web site. "The lesson that it has taught me is not to put the bronze outside."

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