The solid 18-carat gold toilet was created by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, as a social critique of excessive wealth and the growing gap between rich and poor in the US. “No matter what you eat, a $200 lunch or a $2 hot dog, the results are the same, in the toilet,” the artist said of his satirical installation.
America, with an estimated value of around 5.5 million euros and one of three copies, was first exhibited in a toilet cubicle at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2016 and 2017. When the exhibition there ended, the Guggenheim offered it to Donald Trump. The then American president had asked to borrow a painting by Vincent Van Gogh for the White House. The Guggenheim refused, but suggested that he could borrow the toilet to have it installed. As far as we know, Trump did not accept the offer.
Moved in 2019 America to Blenheim Palace, the stately estate from 1722 where the late Winston Churchill was born, in Woodstock near Oxford. The work was placed in a wooden room opposite the bedroom in which the prime minister who would lead the British through the Second World War was born.
It was a work of art, but the toilet was actually connected to the pipes and fully functional. Visitors could book 3-minute appointments to “use the installation individually and privately” and experience “unseen intimacy with a work of art.” It became a sensation on social media and a total of more than 100,000 visitors showed up at the Guggenheim to use it.
“I’m not going to monitor it”
Edward Spencer-Churchill, who often organized exhibitions in the home of his stepbrother, Count James Spencer-Churchill, was not concerned about the security of the gold work of art. The toilet would be too difficult to steal since it was connected. “And a would-be thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate. So no, I have no intention of guarding it,” he said in the run-up to the expo.
Barely two days after the opening of the exhibition, the toilet had already disappeared. An opening party was held at the palace on Friday evening, which lasted until around 2 am. A few hours later, thieves allegedly broke into the palace. By 4:50 am on Saturday morning, September 14, 2019, they had left and the police were called 7 minutes later.
The thieves must have violently broken out the 90 kilo toilet before they sped away in at least two getaway cars, according to the police. When the palace reopened the next day, visitors could still clearly see the damage to the door and floor of the wooden room behind the blue police tape.
Because the toilet was connected, the theft caused “significant damage and flooding” in the palace. Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is filled with valuable art and furniture. Never before had such a theft occurred from the building, which had a “sophisticated security system,” palace CEO Dominic Hare said.
Stolen by the artist himself?
There was immediately a lot of speculation about who could be behind the robbery. Some suspected that Catellan had stolen and hidden the toilet himself to publicize his art with the stunt. In 1996, he had already robbed a gallery in the Netherlands and presented the contents – including the rubbish bins – as his own work.
The theft of his golden toilet was eagerly picked up by the media. After the robbery, several gold-colored toilets turned up in Woodstock, including in a pub, where the thing was soon stolen again. The sensational theft of the original effectively earned Catellan additional fame. The artist appeared naked, behind a gold toilet, in an insurance company commercial with the slogan “Great artists steal.” But he had an alibi for the night of the robbery, he swore.
Cattelan said he initially thought the theft was a prank. When he heard the news, “it took me a moment to realize that it was real and not a surreal film where instead of the crown jewels, the thieves bullshit toilet.” “I’ve always loved heist movies and I’m finally in one,” he also said. He called the thieves “great artists”. “Dear thieves, please, if you are reading this, let me know how much you love the work and what it feels like to pee on gold.”
A few days after the theft, a 66-year-old and 36-year-old man were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary. In the following months, three more men and a woman were arrested. All were to be released without charges. Only on Monday, more than four years after the facts, was it announced that four men between the ages of 35 and 39 had been charged. They are due in court in Oxford on November 28.
James Sheen (39) from Wellingborough appears to be considered the ringleader of the gang of thieves. He has been charged with burglary, the transfer of criminal property and conspiracy to do so. Michael Jones (38) from Oxford has been charged with burglary, while Fred Doe (35) from Ascot and Bora Guccuk (39) from London will stand trial for conspiracy to transfer criminal property.
Without a trace
The golden toilet was never found. A £100,000 reward for the safe return of the work, offered by insurance company Fine Art Specie Adjusters, also failed to convince anyone to come forward with the work.
“Are we ever going to see that toilet again? Personally, I honestly wonder if it’s still in the shape of a toilet,” Police Commissioner Matthew Barber said in 2021. “If you have such a large amount of gold, it seems likely that someone has already gotten rid of it in some other way.” hand could have done.”
Art detective Charlie Hill also suspected that the toilet was cut into pieces and melted, after which the gold was possibly processed into jewelry.
If the artist’s first thought was: “Who is so stupid as to steal a toilet?”, Maurizio Cattelan later admitted that he had forgotten that it was made of gold. “America was the 1 percent for the 99 percent and I hope that is still the case. I want to be positive and think that this theft is some kind of Robin Hood-inspired action.”