Art thief tripped up stealing ink cartridges

WEST CHESTER – When Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin last week asked George A. Athanasatos what he did for a living – in an attempt to gauge whether the defendant could post bail following his sentencing on retail theft and conspiracy charges – Athanasatos responded modestly that he sold cars, “used cars.”

He might have added that he was a retired art thief whose 1989 caper stealing valuable vases from museums up and down the East Coast made newspaper headlines across the country, but that might have been a bit off-topic.

Athanasatos, 57, of Brooklyn, N.Y., faces a sentence of 17-to-48 months in state prison for his role in a series of retail thefts of computer ink-jet cartridges from Staples’ stores during 2008 and 2009 in Exton and King of Prussia. Those thefts, of items that sell for between $25 and $50, are more than a little down market from his former booty, precious Chinese and American ceramic works which the FBI valued at more than $3.5 million.

But Athanasatos, who was imprisoned for the art thefts for more than two years in the early 1990s, seems to have made a career out of the Staples thefts. He was sentenced to 2 ½ to seven years in prison in New York for similar thefts in 2007, has seven prior convictions for retail theft in New Jersey, and is now facing trial for alleged ink jet thefts in North Carolina, in addition to his Chester County conviction.

Gavin – who noted dryly the defendant’s extensive record of criminal conduct in handing down his sentence Thursday — allowed Athanasatos to remain free pending appeal of his convictions provided he post $5,000 cash bail. He did so Friday.

He is represented by West Chester attorney Joseph P. Green Jr., who said his client plans to appeal a decision of Gavin’s that allowed the prosecution to use testimony about a retail theft of which Athanasatos was suspected of taking part, but never charged, at his trial.

The pudgy, balding New Yorker left the courtroom with Green on Thursday, promising to return with the cash for his bail.

Athanasatos was arrested by West Whiteland Police Detective Scott Pezick in 2010 for stealing 39 in jet cartridges valued at $1,843 in December 2009. He was caught in part because he was recognized by the store manager as part of the crew of men that had stolen cartridges from the same store in October 2008, a year before.

According to the charges that he was tried and found guilty of by a Common Pleas Court jury in April, the theft is well orchestrated. Athanasatos and two other men would come into a store and begin selecting items from the racks, including large poster board and a garbage can.

The men would use the poster board to shield from security cameras them taking numerous ink jet cartridges from the aisle racks, placing them in the garbage can. They then go to the rear of the store, where they stuff the cartridges in specially constructed vest underneath a baggy coat one of the men wears.

To get out of the store, one of the men would take an item through the store’s entrance doors to distract the employees, giving the man with the cartridges a chance to make his way out of the store.

The scheme was discovered in October 2008, when an off duty West Goshen police officer spotted a man in a car outside the Staples at the West Goshen center, removing ink jet cartridges from inside his coat. When he tried to question the man, he ran from the scene, leaving the car behind.

Searching the car, police found not only a load of ink jet cartridges, but also a list of Staples stores in southeastern Pennsylvania, and maps of where they were located. The West Goshen manager contacted the manager at the Staples in Exton, Lee Zola, who reviewed the store security tape and saw three men stealing ink jet cartridges earlier that evening.

“It was well planned out,” said Assistant District Attorney Max O’Keefe, who prosecuted the case against Athanasatos.

It was not until 2009, when West Whiteland police investigated the December incident, that the were able to match Athanasatos to the 2008 theft, as well as one at

the Staples on DeKalb Pike in Upper Merion where an audit showed thieves had gotten away with more than $2,700 in merchandise. Zola was able to identify Athanasatos as the man who he had seen on videotape from the 2008 case.

Charges of retail theft and conspiracy against Athanasatos were initially dismissed by a magisterial district judge, but were upheld when they were later re-filed in July 2010. He was found guilty of three counts of retail theft and two counts of conspiracy.

In sentencing Athanasatos, Gavin also ordered him to spend six years on probation after his release.

In March 1989, Athanasatos, then 34, was one of two men from Brooklyn who were charged with stealing works of art valued at $3.5 million from six museums, according to published reports. Among the objects were a 14th century Chinese vase worth $2 million, a Ming Dynasty bowl valued at $450,000, a ceramic vase known in art circles as the “Mona Lisa” of American ceramics worth $500,000, and a 17th century Tibetan statue encrusted with mother of pearl and rubies.

The art works were taken from museums in Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Syracuse and Albany, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio. James Fox, then head of the New York office of the FBI, told reporters that most of the thefts took place by removing them from display cases that did not have burglar alarms during normal museum hours.

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