Midnight Art Heist at Z'Tejas

Artist, restaurant, and police are baffled

Scarlett Olson
Scarlett Olson (Photo By Jana Birchum)

On Feb. 25, Austin artist Scarlett Olson got a call from local arts promoter Sharon Radovich, who wanted to know why the young painter had removed an installation of her work from the walls of the lounge at the Z'Tejas Grill on West Sixth. Radovich had just gotten a call from the restaurant's manager, Matt Dodson, who told her that, as he understood it, Olson removed the paintings some time the previous evening.

Unfortunately, Olson had no idea what Radovich – or Dodson, for that matter – was talking about. It wasn't until the next day that she learned that eight of her original works, worth a total of $12,000, had been taken from the restaurant by an unknown man some time during the early morning of Feb. 25. At press time, she still doesn't know what happened, or where her paintings might be. "This is my total life's dedication," Olson said of her work, "and almost the sole source of my income."

Thus far, Olson says she hasn't had much help in her quest to find out exactly what happened to her paintings. She hasn't gotten any word from Austin police detectives, although she said she's left several messages for them, and she's had little success eking information from Dodson and Z'Tejas. "Z'Tejas has been kind of less than helpful, unfortunately, with this situation," she said. According to Olson, the heist took place some time between 2 and 4am on Feb. 25, while a night janitor was alone in the restaurant. Olson said she went to the restaurant late on Feb. 26, and the janitor told her that he'd inadvertently left the front door open the previous evening while he was inside cleaning. "He said that some man showed up inside the restaurant and said he was there to pick up the paintings," Olson said. The janitor said he tried to get the man to leave, but the intruder was "real insistent about getting the paintings." The janitor finally got the man outside and locked the front door behind him, but somehow the man got inside again, "and was taking the paintings," Olson related. She said that the janitor noticed a black car, possibly an Infiniti, parked out front, but he didn't get the license plate, and he didn't call police. "He should've called the police," said Olson, "but I think he was scared."

Olson said she believes the janitor's account of the heist, but that there are certain details that don't make sense; specifically, that the intruder was alone and driving a midsized sedan. Five of the stolen paintings were on 3-by-4-foot canvas (three were smaller); Olson said she finds it hard to believe that the thief would be able to fit all of them into an Infiniti. (Olson drives a similar-sized car, she said, and has a hard time fitting more than two of the larger canvases inside.) She speculates that the mystery thief had a partner and, possibly, a truck of some sort. Dodson declined to comment for this story. "I just don't feel like commenting on it," he said – and neither does anyone else connected to the restaurant.

Radovich, who runs City Art Link, a company devoted to connecting artists and their work with the rest of the community, and who coordinated the monthlong showing of Olson's work at Z'Tejas, said that nothing like this has happened in the three years she's worked with the restaurant. In fact, she said, in the time that she has been coordinating restaurant showings, she's only been aware of one other theft, of a small painting from a Georgetown restaurant. "I've never had anything [else] removed or damaged," she said. Olson said she believes the thieves would likely try to sell the paintings to an out-of-town gallery, probably after altering the artist's signature.

The Z'Tejas heist is not entirely unique. Last July, the city saw a string of eight smash-and-grab art heists, culminating in the theft of two Picasso linocut prints from the Russell Collection in the Arboretum, and including at least two other thefts, from the Artworks gallery and David Alan Rugs, both just blocks from Z'Tejas along the West Sixth Street corridor. Austin Police Department spokesman Kevin Buchman said police investigators have not yet solved last year's burglaries, and have no leads in the Olson case. "These kinds of cases are definitely a challenge for investigators," he said. Although Olson and Radovich say they have yet to hear from APD detectives about the Feb. 25 theft, Buchman said Central West Area Command detectives have begun investigating.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Olson said this is the first time she's ever had anything like this happen in the years since her first San Antonio restaurant showing, when she was just 9 years old. "I'm not a well-known artist, so my name is not exactly famous," she said. "[But] each [painting had] special ... meaning that can't be replaced."

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