• AFP-Jiji, staff report

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A Tokyo art exhibit opened to enthusiastic visitors, but many of those circulating weren’t just there to soak in some culture — they were casing the joint for a midnight raid.

Hours after the gallery held a preview event on Thursday, a crowd had gathered ready to pounce on the artworks. The police station was nearby, but officers only intervened for crowd control, because all the pieces at the Stealable Art Exhibition were up for grabs.

The event was intended as “an experiment,” to alter the relationship between artists and visitors, organizer Tota Hasegawa said.

It was originally conceived as a low-key event that might attract some covert thievery, but word spread so fast on social media that a crowd of nearly 200 people packed the streets near Same Gallery in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward hoping for a chance to grab a prize.

Would-be robbers were told they could raid the gallery from midnight, but the crowd was so big that the theft started half an hour earlier, and the exhibition that had been billed as running for up to 10 days was emptied of art in less than 10 minutes.

Yusuke Hasada, 26, was a rare winner, gripping a crumpled ¥10,000 ($93) banknote in a frame, which was part of the “My Money” installation by Gabin Ito.

He arrived an hour before midnight only to see a crowd had already formed.

Since there was no apparent queue, he maneuvered himself into a spot right in front of the gallery.

Visitors look at artworks in Same Gallery during the opening ceremony of the Stealable Art Exhibition in Tokyo on Thursday, hours before the gallery let people steal the art. | AFP-JIJI
Visitors look at artworks in Same Gallery during the opening ceremony of the Stealable Art Exhibition in Tokyo on Thursday, hours before the gallery let people steal the art. | AFP-JIJI

“The moment the staff said they should open early due to the big crowd, people rushed in from behind me. I was in the front, and I almost fell over,” he said.

“It was scary.”

Auction resales

Hasada said he plans to hang the work, among those on display supplied by 10 contemporary artists, in his home.

But not everyone stealing the items appeared to have the same idea, with several artworks appearing on online auction sites within hours with price tags as high as ¥100,000.

Even after the exhibit was emptied out, would-be thieves continued arriving, forcing a nearby police station to dispatch officers for crowd control.

“You are blocking traffic!” officers shouted.

Yuka Yamauchi, a 35-year-old systems engineer, showed up 15 minutes before midnight but was too late.

“I entered with my husband and it was just packed with so many people. … We saw larger artworks taken out by those who came earlier,” she said.

“I haven’t seen so many people in a long time as we have been refraining from going out due to the coronavirus.”

People carry artwork created by Yang02 outside Same Gallery after they took the work during a stealable art exhibition on Thursday in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI
People carry artwork created by Yang02 outside Same Gallery after they took the work during a stealable art exhibition on Thursday in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI

But Yamauchi didn’t leave completely empty-handed.

“I’ve got a clip … It must have been one of those used for the cloth installation. I found it dropped, so I picked it up as a souvenir,” she said with a laugh.

‘Well-mannered’ thieves

Yamauchi recognized the clip because she was at a preview of the artwork six hours earlier to “case” the venue.

She said she would happily come back for a similar “participatory” art event, where some of the artists showcased work that was purpose-made for those hoping to make off with it.

Naoki “SAND” Yamamoto’s work “Midnight Vandalist” was composed of a stack of peelable pages with printed illustrations.

Another work was a large cloth printed with lines to be cut along with scissors.

But would-be thieves were responsible for organizing their own getaway vehicles. A notice was posted at the entrance: “We do not assist art thieves with packing or transporting artworks, so you are responsible for everything.”

Organizer Hasegawa said he later met with police — perhaps not used to such large-scale larceny in Japan, with its ultra-low crime rate — to clear up any misunderstandings about the event and the crowd it attracted.

He said the budding thieves had proved to be “well-mannered.”

They might have been there to stage robberies, but when “someone lost a bag with a wallet in it, it was passed onto a staffer and safely returned to the owner.”

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