Bassist Elliot Newkirk and his fellow bandmates in Stereo Fire Empire had just spilled out of the House of Blues at 1 a.m. Wednesday and were headed to a bar when they spotted it, leaning up against a French Quarter building: a $250,000 George Rodrigue painting that had been stolen about 10 hours earlier.
With it was a print featuring the acclaimed artist’s famous “blue dog” that apparently had been stolen earlier.
The four musicians had just been talking about Tuesday’s brazen daytime theft by a man who walked into the Rodrigue Gallery on Royal Street, took the painting off the wall and walked out.
“Literally five minutes later, we walked past the Rib Room on Royal Street and there were these two paintings leaning up against the wall,” Newkirk said. “We were like, ‘Holy s***, it’s the blue dog painting!’ ”
It didn’t take the men long to decide what needed to be done. They picked up the painting and print and walked them two blocks to the New Orleans Police Department’s nearby 8th District station.
“We go to the police station, and they were like, ‘Who the hell are you guys?’ We flashed the painting and they said, ‘Come in here!’ ” Newkirk said.
Stereo Fire Empire’s discovery ended a frantic search by Jacques Rodrigue, the artist’s son, and the gallery, which was hosting a retrospective of George Rodrigue’s work one year after his death.
The painting stolen Tuesday, called “Wendy and Me,” depicts Rodrigue as the iconic blue dog standing next to his wife, Wendy, who is in a wedding gown. It was painted in 1997, and copies were sent to guests at the couple’s wedding.
“It’s so special to my family and I,” Jacques Rodrigue said at an NOPD news conference Tuesday morning. “It’s really irreplaceable … priceless. … Just to have this piece back, and that it wasn’t destroyed … That was our biggest fear, that someone was going to destroy the evidence and we would never see this painting again.”
Rodrigue said that other than some minor damage to the frame, the painting is unharmed. He thanked the members of Stereo Fire Empire and all who helped spread word of the theft Tuesday.
As for the print, a numbered silkscreen featuring the blue dog, a cat and a bulldog called “The Three Amigos,” police will use some information on the back of the frame to try to figure out its rightful owner.
The print is part of a limited edition sold for $500 to nonprofits that they could then resell at auctions to raise money. Rodrigue said the prints are sold unframed, making the information on the frame possibly the only way to find the owner.
Eighth District Commander Jeff Walls said investigators are working on identifying the thief, who appeared in a surveillance video to be a thin white man with a beard and knit cap. He said a clearer image from the surveillance footage will be made available.
Newkirk said it was an odd feeling to stroll up to the police station “with a quarter-million-dollar painting in our hands,” but the police took down their statements, visited the scene and took their contact information.
“I was a little worried about that, thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope they don’t think we did it. That would really suck.’ But they were really nice with us the whole time. They were real friendly,” he said.
After about an hour, the Stereo Fire Empire members left the station feeling they had been able to do some good. The group stayed out until 5 a.m. but woke up to a slew of phone calls, texts and emails about their newfound celebrity.
“It’s all pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s all happening really fast.”
And while the good publicity is always welcome, Newkirk said the band did what anyone would have done.
“We’re not going to leave (the artworks) there and we’re not going to take them, so we might as well give them back to the owner,” Newkirk said. “Get some good karma points.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.