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Okanagan galleries hit by string of art thefts

Gallery owners and artists in the Okanagan say they've lost tens of thousands of dollars of art in the past few months to a gang of art thieves.

Gallery owners and artists in the Okanagan region of British Columbia say they've lost tens of thousands of dollars of art in the past few months to a gang of art thieves.

Galleries in Vernon, Kelowna and Westbank have reported at least 11 thefts of paintings and sculptures since December, including several in the past two weeks.

In most cases, gallery owners describe a man and a woman coming in separately, distracting gallery staff and then running out with a high-priced piece of fine art.

Artist Julia Trops says three of her paintings were taken from the Rotary Arts Centre in Kelowna, along with the price tags.

"All the ones that were taken — there was a value written on there. That could be substantiation for the people who have taken the art," she said.

Among the hardest-hit artists is metal sculptor Doug Alcock of Vernon, who lost two pieces worth thousands of dollars.

"Artists are usually living close to the edge. We're near the poverty line most of our existence, so it's a fairly significant loss," he said.

Susan Einerssen, owner of Gallery 421 in Kelowna, believes the crimes are what she calls a "theft on demand" operation.

In March, thieves made off with an $800 soapstone carving from her gallery, she said.

"Somebody finds a professional and says, 'This is what I want. I'll give you a certain amount of money.' And then they go out and 'shop,'" she said.

The RCMP agree the thefts may be linked, but a spokesperson said there's no evidence to indicate there is an organized art theft ring active in the area.

"Right now, all those files are being treated as separate incidents and if at some point we have reason to believe they are connected, we will investigate," said RCMP Const. Annie Linteau.

Kelowna-based Trops said the thefts will not dissuade artists in the Okanagan from exhibiting their work in public. "That's just part of being an artist, and sometimes things do get stolen," she said.

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