LOS ANGELES — The thief pulled up to an antiquities gallery on La Cienega Boulevard with a clear plan.
He backed a rental van into the gallery driveway, broke through a gate and entered a storage yard carrying a moving dolly. Bypassing African wood carvings, Japanese terracotta roof tiles and assorted stone sculptures, he seized a massive 250-pound bronze Buddha statue worth $1.5 million. The entire operation took less than 25 minutes.
The identity and motive of the thief who hit the Barakat Gallery around 3 a.m. on Monday remained a mystery Saturday. Was he a connoisseur of temple art from feudal Japan? Was he hired by someone who was? Or was he just one of the many scrap metal scroungers who prowl Los Angeles by night and entirely oblivious to the object's historical value?
With Los Angeles police investigating, gallery staff were re-watching surveillance video that captured part of the crime and batting around various theories.
"We've been trying to put the pieces together," said Paul Henderson, the gallery director.
The missing item is a seated Buddha with a halo, roughly 4 feet tall, created during Japan's Edo Period (1603-1867) probably as the centerpiece of a temple, according to the gallery.
Gallery owner Fayez Barakat acquired the Buddha 55 years ago and kept it in his backyard in L.A. for many years, he told KTLA.
"I prize it so much," said Barakat, who now lives in London. He said he was concerned that whoever took it might not recognize how rare and important it is.
"I hope that the person who stole it is not stealing it for the weight of the bronze because it's a historical item," Barakat said.
There appeared no doubt that the thief — or someone associated with him — had visited the gallery premises before the robbery. The statue was never shown in the gallery itself but kept in a corner of a rear yard that was not visible from the street. It was not on the store's website and no one had inquired about it recently, according to the gallery.
"It had to have been scoped out beforehand," Henderson said.
A grainy surveillance video captured the thief, his face obscured by a Wu-Tang Clan hoodie, exiting a Budget Rent a Car van. The license plate was not visible. After breaking through the lower part of the gate, the thief took a dolly out of the van and strode up the driveway toward the storage area.
"He moves with intent, there's no waffling around or looking around. He knew where to go," Henderson said.
Police are looking for video surveillance from neighboring businesses and plan to collect additional evidence from the scene next week, according to the gallery. Anyone with information is asked to call the Los Angeles Police Department at 1-877-275-5273.
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