Thieves Steal the Artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Solid Gold Toilet in an Audacious Heist at Blenheim Palace

As fears grow the 18-karat gold work of art could be melted down, the Italian artist says the robbery is "deadly serious" and not a prank.

Installation view of Maurizio Cattelan's America (2016) in "Victory is Not an Option" at Blenheim Palace, 2019. Photo by Tom Lin.

British police have arrested a man after burglars stole Maurizio Cattelan’s solid gold toilet from Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, UK. The conceptual work of art, reportedly worth around $5 million, is still missing 24 hours after the daring heist, leading to fears that the 18-karat gold work might be melted down.

A gang of thieves broke into the stately home near Oxford the night after Cattelan’s America (2016) had gone on display to the public. Police confirmed in a statement that the thieves had made their getaway by 4:50 a.m. on Saturday morning, having removed the high-value, heavy weight, and fully functioning work of art. It had been plumbed into the water closet once used by Winston Churchill.

The audacious theft will also cause red faces at Blenheim Palace and the Blenheim Art Foundation, which organized the Italian artist’s first solo show in the UK. Cattelan corrected speculation that the theft was a hoax. “I wish it was a prank,” he told the New York Times, adding that the robbery is “deadly serious if even a little bit surreal.”

The chief executive of Blenheim Palace, Dominic Hare, said in a statement: “We hope against hope” that America can be recovered.

Thames Valley Police confirmed that a 66-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the theft, and that he remains in custody. In a statement, Blenheim Palace said that it was relieved that no one was hurt during the robbery. The thieves did cause significant flooding when they removed toilet, however, and Blenheim Palace remained shut yesterday, September 14. It is due to reopen today. The extent of the damage to the historic interior of water closet near Churchill’s bedroom, and rooms beneath it, is unclear.

Installation view, Victory is Not an Option (2019), Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace, 2019. Photo by Tom Lindboe.

The thieves would have had the past six months to plan the robbery as the arrival of Cattelan’s America, the highlight of the exhibition, “Victory Is Not an Option,” was first announced in May. This has increased fears that the sculpture could be melted down. The gang used two vehicles to carry out the robbery, and remove the heavy toilet.

Daniel Birnbaum, the former museum director who is now the artistic director of the VR company Acute Art, was at the exhibition’s opening party on Friday night. He describes America‘s theft as “a bit Duchampian,” not least because champagne had flowed all evening during the private view. “In such foggy atmosphere spectacular rumors can emerge. Remember the speculations that Picasso and Apollinaire had stolen the Mona Lisa? This is the stuff mythologies are made of: gold, theft, young Churchill’s nightly urination, the White House,” he tells Artnet News. He says that melting down the work of art would be “grotesque,” however.

Cattelan said that he hoped it was installed in someone’s bathroom again and used as it was meant to be, and not melted down. The artist made a poignant appeal to the burglars: “Dear thieves, please, if you are reading this, let me know how much you like the piece and how it feels to pee on gold,” Cattelan said.

Ahead of Cattelan’s exhibition, Edward Spencer-Churchill, who is the founder of the Blenheim Art Foundation and the half-brother of the Duke of Marlborough, appeared relaxed about the risks of borrowing such a valuable work of art. He told The Sunday Times newspaper the America would not be “the easiest thing to nick.”

A spokesperson for the art foundation confirmed the piece was insured. The loan was not covered by the UK government indemnity scheme, a spokewoman for Arts Council England confirms. Blenheim Palace’s security would have had to have met national art museum standards to qualify for the scheme that covers loss or damage of works.

Cattelan’s exhibition is the latest in a series of annual interventions by leading artists at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace, which has been the home of the dukes of Marlborough since the 18th century.  Previous exhibitions have included solo shows by Jenny Holzer, Ai Weiwei, and Yves Klein, but none have generated the level of publicity caused by the theft of the Italian artist’s gold toilet.

Blenheim CEO Dominic Hare drew cold comfort from the theft, saying in his statement: “We hope that the wonderful work of our dear friend Maurizio Cattelan becomes immortalized by this stupid and pointless act.”

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