A Greek man has been accused of an inept attempt to steal a Salvador Dalí painting from a New York gallery, taking the picture as security cameras rolled and later, in a panic, trying to send it back anonymously.
Phivos Istavrioglou also left fingerprints that helped detectives track him down – another misstep in a botched fine art caper that even he found foolish, according to an account of a confession contained in court papers.
As soon as Istavrioglou walked out of the Upper East Side gallery last summer with the Dalí watercolour and on to Fifth Avenue, he "was scared and couldn't believe what a stupid thing he did", the papers say.
Istavrioglou, 29, of Athens, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to grand larceny during a brief court appearance in Manhattan where a judge set bail at $100,000 (£65,000). His attorney had no immediate comment.
Prosecutors accused Istavrioglou of stealing the painting, Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio, in broad daylight while visiting New York in June. After pulling it off the wall, he stashed it in a shopping bag and flew with it back to Athens, authorities said.
"It was almost surreal how this theft was committed – a thief is accused of putting a valuable Salvador Dalí drawing into a shopping bag in the middle of the afternoon, in full view of surveillance cameras," the district attorney, Cyrus R Vance Jr, said.
Shortly after learning authorities had distributed security photographs of him that were seen around the world, Istavrioglou took the $150,000 work out of its frame. He then rolled it up in a cardboard tube – "in a manner befitting a college dorm poster" – and mailed it back to New York without a return address, prosecutor Jordan Arnold said.
New York police department detectives lifted fingerprints from the shipment that matched one from a juice bottle that they say Istavrioglou shoplifted last year from a Whole Foods market, giving them a name, said the police commissioner, Raymond Kelly. An investigator posing as an art gallery owner later tricked Istavrioglou into returning to New York by offering him a possible position as a consultant.
Federal agents intercepted Istavrioglou at John F Kennedy international airport on Saturday. While speaking to detectives that afternoon, court papers say, he "indicated he knew the theft would catch up to him and wants to make [the] situation right".