MONDAY: The Robot who Coveted Mondrian


Copyright is held by the author.

EPINEPHRINE PROBES probes on the museum’s employees came back negative. No staff member at the Gottes Arbeit Gallery was involved with the painting’s theft, or the procurement of the copy which now hung in its assigned place.

The stolen Mondrian was on loan from the Gemeentemuseum and scheduled to continue its North American tour at the Neue Gallery, within a week. A cursory examination of the painting in preparation for that shipment easily revealed the fraud. The false image was printed on plastic fibres rather than canvas. The surface had been cleverly textured to imitate brush strokes and variations in paint thickness, but it was unnaturally, unmistakably stiff.

There was no doubt that the museum had received the genuine masterpiece three months ago because it had been closely examined and X-rayed immediately after un-crating. De rode boom had somehow been removed from this museum’s walls and replaced with a colourful slab of plastic despite being admired by hundreds of patrons during the day and several overlapping security cameras at night.

“You suspect the robot?” Sergeant Shelly was intrigued.

“It’s fairly sophisticated, for an automaton,” Inspector Horla said, “despite its humble assignment. We can’t find evidence that the museum’s security system was compromised, but maintenance machines were never part of that electronic grid. It’s a potential vulnerability.”

They watched the robot-janitor circumambulate the display area, guided by a magnetic strip embedded in the floor. It stopped in front of each painting, then extruded tubes which expelled tiny puffs of air. Complementary hoses sucked up the displaced dust motes, and the machine moved on.

When the device approached the Mondrian copy, it didn’t alter its behaviour. Eight spherical wheels stopped rolling, green lasers located the extremities of the ornate frame, then a stocky Kevlar torso extended slender appendages which hovered around the colourful surface like palps of a gigantic insect. When all microscopic pollutants had been gently removed from the tangled branches of Mondrian’s red tree, the robot moved six feet to the left and repeated that cleansing process for the artist’s more famous Boogie woogie number eight.

“It’s clearly an inside job,” the Inspector reiterated. The copy was created by a large format 3-D printer in the museum’s own restoration shop, and the textured surface was sprayed with pigments from its own supply cupboards. Surprisingly, tracking microchips glued to the canvas of the original Red Tree were removed and attached to the reproduction. “We’ve been focused on human employees, but the robot had identical access to all of that technology.”

“If someone programmed the janitor-robot to steal our Mondrian, there will be evidence left in its processor.” Shelly’s predatory instinct was activated. “An Ex-Machina dissection will reveal it.”

“I’ve no doubt.” They watched the robot continue its duties. It rolled smoothly up three steps into the primitives’ room. The machine’s large torso pivoted forward to maintain balance as spherical wheels stretched and articulated like bulbous toes. At the same time, mechanical probes extended vertically sixteen feet to dust carved crown moldings decorating the ceiling margins. “Look at the thing,” the Inspector said. “Its tool housing is large enough to conceal the canvas, if it were turned sideways, and one can easily imagine those tentacles obscuring a camera lens while pretending to clean it.”

“The programming would be complicated, but not impossible.” Shelly entered some notes into her tablet. She was eager to start the dissection.

But inspector Horla chewed the inside of his cheek, clearly unsatisfied.

“What’s bothering you?” his partner asked. They had just decided on a new, credible line of inquiry. It was no time for pessimism.

“Well, the theft of that particular painting doesn’t make economic sense. It’s a very early work and it’s interesting mainly because it’s unfamiliar. But it doesn’t have the tremendous value of the Mondrian hanging right beside it. And the Klimt on the fourth floor is probably worth thirty times as much.”

Shelly laughed. “How often have you told me that art collection itself defies logic? If a Mondrian enthusiast wanted that particular painting, it really doesn’t matter if you or I think the effort is misplaced. It’s a mania, a recognized form of insanity.”

“But that type of thief needs to possess the painting, to see it every day and deeply feel the sensation of ownership.” He clenched his fingers.

“I’m sure our thief is already experiencing those delights. Someone clever enough to remove artwork from these walls could just as easily disguise its removal from the building.”

The inspector was suddenly very animated. “But I believe the painting is still here, hidden somewhere within the Gottes Arbeit.” He turned to his partner. “I can’t explain it. After all, I’m a human being not a robot, but I have a strong intuition that De rode boom is still inside the museum.”

The robot janitor slid back down the steps from the primitives’ room and moved along its invisible track towards a set of stairs leading to the maintenance and restoration areas in the basement. Its nightly duties were complete. The two policemen followed as the machine elegantly maneuvered around landings and sent an electronic signal to unlock and open a department door labeled “Renewal.”

The robot entered a workshop cluttered with ongoing restoration projects, but it completely ignored those cleaning and repair operations. Its charging station was located just inside the entrance door, within a retrofitted closet. The machine remotely opened the charging station door, backed into the tight space, and as a probe was inserted into the proper outlet, the door swung slowly shut like the lid of a sarcophagus in an old horror movie.

It took Shelly a few minutes to circumvent the door lock, but once it was opened the robot’s processor was easy to remove. There was a schematic conveniently printed on its abdomen housing, so Shelly could quickly disconnect the sandwich-sized unit, and place it in an evidence bag.

For three weeks, the cyber-crime department milked coded instructions from the tiny hard-drive but found nothing nefarious, just the normal byzantine instructions necessary for unsupervised movement through a changeable environment. The manufacturer was cooperative, and a forensic comparison with other factory units demonstrated that the museum’s robot had not been modified in any way.

The Gottes Arbeit Gallery hired several humans to replace the robot-janitor during the dissection, but it was a disastrous experiment. One of the new employees was almost immediately arrested for stealing a small ivory sculpture and the museum lobbied for the rapid return of their robot’s brain.

Inspector Horla was forced to submit a report suggesting retrieval efforts shift to the international stolen art market, then reverse-engineer the crime when the painting was located.

The Gottes Arbeit Gallery actually experienced a spike in visits after the theft became public. The curator designed a popular exhibit where patrons were invited to touch the counterfeit Mondrian, to viscerally appreciate the cleverness of the crime and there was a nearby computer station accepting suggestions about how the theft might have been committed.

The robot-janitor’s processor was eventually restored and, once again, it was allowed to silently move through the Gottes Arbeit at night, thoughtlessly dislodging dust particles from the various collections. And every morning, as the museum reopened, the machine rolled back into its closet charging station.

As soon as that door snicked shut, an electronic pulse raised a false rear wall and, for eleven glorious hours, green laser receptors could scan the beautiful oblong hidden in the shallow recess, reading and re-reading the encoded passion of tangled red branches until it was time to return to work.

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1 comment
  1. A clever, engaging, well-told story…until the final sentence. That the robot had the ability to construct a retractable false wall, and not be discovered doing it, stretched credibility too far.

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