Documenting Art Theft: Cristóbal Berríos Discusses ‘Stealing Rodin’

In 2005, for a few hours, a priceless Rodin statue disappeared from the Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Santiago, Chile. ‘Stealing Rodin’ revisits the unlikely story of the statue's return

Robar a Rodin

In 2005, the Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Santiago, Chile, hosted a collection of sculptures by the French master Auguste Rodin. Late one morning, after a party celebrating another of the museum’s exhibits, security guards were shocked to find that one of the Rodin pieces had gone missing during the previous night’s festivities. For a frantic afternoon officials at the museum debated how to move forward. Authorities were contacted and a search begun. But, just as things moved into high gear, a young man, a local art student, Luis Onfray, showed up with the statue in his backpack, claiming he had found the piece in a patch of flowers in the park across the street. As quickly as the robbery had been discovered, the piece had been returned. The story of the pieces abduction, however, and its evening on the town, had just begun to unfold and the international art community would soon split over the handling of the case.

“Stealing Rodin,” is the first feature documentary from Chilean filmmaker Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos, and makes its world premiere at Sanfic on Thursday. Berríos also co-wrote the film along with María Luisa Furche and Sebastián Rioseco.The film was produced by María Paz González through her company María Una Vez, and co-produced by French production company Ceresa Films. Funding largely came from Chilean state funds – the Audiovisual Fund and Corfo, an agency of the government of Chile in charge of supporting entrepreneurship, innovation and competitiveness in the country. The film also won awards from the Banco Estado to help with distribution and a Work in Progress award at the Santiago Documentary Film Festival (FIDOCS).

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In November, the film will enter Chilean cinemas under the Miradoc program that promotes Chilean documentary-making with monthly premieres via a network of 26 independent cinemas throughout the country. “Stealing Rodin” will also be screened in some commercial screens domestically.

“It is thanks to organizations like Miradoc that Chilean documentaries are finding greater audiences,” said Berríos. The premiere date for “Stealing Rodin,” coincides with the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death.

Berríos fielded questions from Variety about the film, and the consequences of the events documented within.

Was it easy to get Luis involved in the movie?

Luis is a rather complex character, but had no problem agreeing to participate in the project. He was interested in the film as an artistic collaboration, rather than as an interviewee. Also, this documentary was his opportunity to tell his side of the story, which had never been told to the public.

What is he up to today?

He works in a very luxurious antiques shop selling works of art and centuries old pieces that are very expensive. Apart from the sales, he is in charge of security, so it is a rather funny situation if you contrast it with the Rodin case.

How have his actions impacted his art career?

The Rodin case did not help Onfray’s career in any way. On the contrary, it crushed it. For all of Chile this story joined the pathetic with the ridiculous, and nobody bought into it. Onfray had never been a well known name on the local art scene, but after the robbery he disappeared to the level of not existing, becoming an urban myth. In fact it was difficult for us to find him because after the robbery he changed his name.

How was the relatively light sentence received by the art community?

The Rodin Case was not taken as a cultural case in Chile. In newspapers, it was more like a police story. The artistic community remained quite indifferent to Onfray and his fate, the truth did not lend much interest. This documentary proposes an artistic debate on this story that was never given at the time.

How was the whole series of events perceived in France? Specifically amongst the people who handle the Rodin collection?

As we were told by the Chilean curators of the exhibition, the Rodin Museum handled the robbery with much more calm than here in Chile, where the news caused a media explosion. In addition, there was very little time between when they realized that the sculpture had disappeared at 10 am, and reappeared that same afternoon, so the news was scarcely covered by the French press. I think that the Rodin Museum reacted worse to our documentary than to the robbery itself. For the film we would go into Paris and they closed all their doors to us, barring us from recording at their facilities or from interviewing any person related to the museum. They interpreted our film as a celebration of art theft.

Where will the movie be going after SANFIC?

In September, “Stealing Rodin” will screen at the Viña del Mar International Film Festival, which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary. In October, it will shown at the Yamagata Intl. Documentary Film Festival and start its run on the international festival circuit. In November, it will released domestically, both in commercial theaters and via the Miradoc network of independent cinemas throughout the country.