Jarred Tervalon and Jared Thomas apparently saw green when they looked at the Blue Dog.
The two New Orleans men were arrested last week after they allegedly tried to sell a valuable but stolen piece of art depicting the signature blue canine with white snout and yellow eyes made famous by the late artist George Rodrigue.
According to Orleans Parish court documents, the would-be buyer tipped off the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 10 when he saw the painting listed for sale on Craigslist for $15,000.
That person figured something wasn’t right when he was able to negotiate the asking price down to $5,500. The piece would have gone for about $50,000 if sold from the George Rodrigue Studios, according to court documents.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said the would-be buyer alerted the Sheriff’s Office to the apparent scam after he had trouble getting in touch with the New Orleans Police Department.
Investigators with the sheriff’s Economic Crimes Unit replied to the ad and made a counteroffer: $6,000, according to court documents.
A day later, they met with the salesman, later identified as Thomas, in the parking lot of the Clearview Mall.
Adding to the suspicious nature of the pending sale was the fact that Thomas agreed to make the exchange only if the buyer would ask no questions about the origins of the piece.
“It was obvious they didn’t want to have to answer any questions about the authenticity of this particular piece of art, didn’t want to raise any suspicion other than the fact that they knew and we knew we were buying it at pennies on the dollar as it relates to the value of that particular piece,” Normand said.
After Thomas took the piece out of his Honda Civic, investigators pounced.
During an interview, Thomas, 21, said he and Tervalon, 23, a childhood friend, agreed to split the proceeds of any sale of the piece.
“Their excuse was they needed Christmas money,” Normand said.
Thomas said Tervalon’s grandfather operates a frame shop that contracts with the Rodrigue gallery, a claim investigators confirmed.
Thomas told investigators that he had no idea the piece was stolen and assumed Tervalon had permission to have it because of the affiliation between his grandfather’s business and the gallery.
Thomas said he and Tervalon sold another Blue Dog print months ago and divided the proceeds. Normand said investigators are still trying to find that piece.
During a search of Thomas’ cellphone, investigators read text messages from Tervalon stating that he was en route from Lafayette with five more paintings or prints to sell at $5,000 each.
Later, after obtaining a search warrant, deputies with the Orleans and Jefferson sheriff’s offices searched Tervalon’s home in the 5700 block of Vermillion Street in Gentilly.
During the search, Tervalon admitted to investigators that the additional pieces of stolen art were in his grandfather’s van, which was parked in the driveway.
The total value of the five pieces was about $25,000, according to court documents.
Thomas, who was booked into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, was free Thursday on a $25,000 bond, according to Jefferson court records.
Tervalon was released from Orleans Parish Prison on a $10,000 bond, according to jail records.
Jacques Rodrigue, George Rodrigue’s son, issued a statement cautioning potential buyers of Blue Dog pieces to deal only with the gallery, which is the exclusive dealer for works by the late artist.
“We are happy to have recovered all of the stolen artwork thanks to the hard work of the New Orleans and Jefferson Parish (authorities),” he said.
The recent theft was at least the second time in recent years Blue Dog paintings were heisted. A man grabbed two off the wall of the artist’s Royal Street studio in June 2010. Police later found them hidden in a garbage bag in a shed on North Broad Street.
WWL-TV reporter Paul Murphy contributed to this report. Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.