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Brazen Thief Stole Priceless Works Of Art In Broad Daylight For The Adrenaline Rush

“For me, it was like driving a car at close to 150 miles per hour, feeling the bolts possibly loosening a little bit. It was pretty intoxicating,” Mark Lugo said of the thrill he got during each heist. 

By Jill Sederstrom
Mark Lugo Ap

When a sophisticated sommelier waltzed into a San Francisco art gallery and plucked a Pablo Picasso drawing off the wall before casually walking back out, it wasn’t for the money.

Mark Lugo was motivated by the sheer adrenaline rush he got from taking the priceless piece of artwork in broad daylight. And it wasn’t his first taste of criminal life.

Lugo already had a New Jersey apartment full of other pieces of stolen art work lining his walls—but while he'd gotten away with those earlier thefts, one crucial mistake he made while lifting the Picasso would land him in police crosshairs.

“For me, it was like driving a car at close to 150 miles per hour, feeling the bolts possibly loosening a little bit. It was pretty intoxicating,” Lugo told CNBC’s “Super Heists” of the thrill of the thefts in an episode airing Monday, Sept. 7 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. 

Lugo—who grew up in New York and Pennsylvania—had a comfortable childhood, but from an early age he said he loved to amass collections of the things. 

“When I enjoy something, I tend to dive in pretty deeply,” he said. “So, I guess in that sense, compulsive behavior could be interpreted slightly.”

Lugo fell in love with the elite art world after college while working as a sommelier at some of the finest restaurants in New York City, where he rubbed elbows with the city’s wealthiest residents, art curators and gallery owners.

“The halo effect of luxury is if you are around it, you want it,” Stephanie Musat, former journalist with the Jersey Journal said in Monday’s episode.

It wasn’t enough just for Lugo to admire the works of art hanging on the wall of other museums, he wanted to possess it himself.

“Some of these great works, there is something kind of magical about them,” Lugo said of the magnetic pull he felt toward the art.

His love turned criminal on June 6, 2011 while he was admiring a piece at a SoHo art gallery and realized there was a surprising lack of security and no one nearby.

“There were no cameras at all. I was befuddled,” he recalled. “It was a split-second decision, where I pick up the painting itself. Physically holding it kind of changed the dynamics of things a bit.”

Lugo decided to calmly walk out of the gallery with the painting in tow, making his first successful theft.

“It was definitely an adrenaline rush, a tremendous adrenaline rush,” he told “Super Heists.”

The ease of the heist sent him on a robbery spree, taking seven works of art in galleries around New York City in just 10 days, according to the show.

“It had to be a clear getaway without any issue,” he said of the works he chose to steal.

One of his boldest heists in New York came three weeks into his crime spree when he stole a Erland Leger painting, valued at $350,000, from the famed Carlisle Hotel.

Investigators were able to capture one grainy images of Lugo making off with the valuable work of art, but it wasn’t enough to be able to identify him.

“I was like, ‘This is incredibly easy,’” Lugo said of his early success. “You think to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this, you know, I’m kind of invincible.’”

Lugo had an impressive art collection of his own at his Hoboken apartment—and hadn’t attempted to sell any of it—but he began realize he might be able to sell some of the stolen pieces to make some money.

Although stolen goods only typically sell for a fraction of their value—an estimated 20 percent—there is still money to be made. For example, a stolen piece of art worth $200,000 at auction could net an estimated $40,000 on the black market.

“There are all kinds of markets for art, you know, and not all of them are above board,” art historian and critic Martha Schwenener told “Super Heists.”  

Lugo wanted to continue his newfound career, but he also suspected it was time to head out of New York and to try a fresh market.

After doing some online reconnaissance, he settled on The Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco because of its lack of security.

“I noticed clearly, you know, they had close to $100 million worth of art work within their doors,” Lugo told “Super Heists.”

Lugo was intrigued by a 1965 sketch by Pablo Picasso known as “Tete de Femme” which at the time was valued at approximately $250,000.

The plan was for Lugo to fly into San Francisco, visit the gallery and steal the coveted sketch before heading to Napa Valley to visit a friend.

Lugo arranged to stay at the Hotel Palomar because of its convenient location just blocks away from the gallery.

On July 5, 2011—just four weeks after his heists began—Lugo casually walked into the gallery wearing a pair of boat loafers and casual slacks and waited for a time when he was left alone with the sketch.

“At that moment, it was the perfect storm. There was absolutely no one in sight. The opportunity posed itself perfectly for me,” Lugo said.

Lugo calmly pried the sketch off the wall and walked out with it under his arm, using a newspaper to block the frame’s contents.

But just as he was making his way out of the gallery, a woman spied Lugo’s unusual cargo.

“I could feel her eyes on me, staring at the frame,” he said.

Panicked, Lugo quickly hailed a cab, jumped in and told the driver to take him to the Palomar—a critical mistake that would later come back to haunt him.

After revealing the location of his actual hotel, Lugo quickly tried to cover the mistake and asked the driver to drop him off at the Apple Store a few blocks away instead. He then packed his bags and took off with his unsuspecting friend for Napa Valley.

But while Lugo was headed for a relaxing vacation, the San Francisco Police had gotten word of the heist and were determined to catch the thief.

“I don’t recall any other case similar to this case, it was a one and only,” retired San Francisco Police Det. Donna Loftus told “Super Heists.”

Investigators knew they’d have to recover the sketch quickly before it disappeared on the black market.

Although the clock was ticking, investigators already had one critical clue. The woman who saw Lugo making his getaway was able to provide police with a description of the thief, the cab number and cab company of the vehicle she had seen him get into.

“This was golden. I mean this was a huge nugget,” San Francisco Police Lt. Edward Santos Jr. said.

Using that information, police were able to track down the cab driver who recalled that Lugo had first asked to go to the Palomar hotel. Investigators went to the hotel and were able to identify Lugo as their suspect, but before they could take him into custody, they’d have to find him.

To find out more about how investigators found Lugo in Napa Valley and what the brash crime spree would end up costing the art burglar, tune in to “Super Heists” Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.

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