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Participants at Arts & Crafts Fairs Find Theft All Too Prevalent

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Unzipping her booth tent the second morning of an arts fair, mixed-media artist Patricia Hecker of Bloomington, Indiana knew that someone had been there the night before. Her artwork was OK, but a cabinet had been broken into. "I'm sure someone was looking for money," she said. Fortunately, she had made sure to take all cash and receipts back to the motel the evening before, so there was no loss on that end -- just a damaged cabinet. Hecker mentioned the break-in to the fair sponsors, who had hired security guards and had otherwise required all of the participating artists to sign a contract in which they acknowledge that all property at the site is left there at the vendors' own risk, but not to her insurance company. Why bother? The $1,000 deductible on her policy far exceeded the value of the cabinet, "and if you report a claim they'll just raise your rates."

Thefts are an occasional, sometimes regular, nuisance for artists and craftspeople who sell their work at fairs and festivals, despite the sincere efforts of the event sponsors and the artists themselves to stop them. They take place at night, when the artists aren't around to watch their booths, and during the day when the artists are busy making sales and talking to would-be buyers.

Some thieves, like Hecker's intruder, are looking for money, while others may be more interested in the truck in which the art was transported; a drill was stolen from the tent of Gregory Reade, a sculptor in La Jolla, California, when he participated in a fair in Scottsdale, Arizona, while the art was untouched. David Bigelow, a printmaker in Ozark, Missouri, said that thieves have broken into his truck on several occasions, stealing the crates that contained his etchings -- he has no idea what the robbers assumed they might be taking. The lesson he learned is: "Only eat at a restaurant when you can sit at the window and see your vehicle."

Yet other thieves simply want a piece of art and not pay for it. "Two girls who had had too much to drink and had seen my work earlier in the day" crawled under the tent of Michael Baker, a sculptor in Salisbury, North Carolina, when he took part in a show in State College, Pennsylvania, grabbing one of his statues. Walking back to their Penn State residence hall, they were spotted by a campus police officer, at which point they dropped the sculpture (it wasn't damaged) and tried to get away. Instead, they and the sculpture were brought to the campus police headquarters, where their parents were called, and Baker was called, too. "I was brought down and asked if I wanted to bring charges against them, but I didn't want to do that," Baker said. "The next day, the girls came to my tent, and I gave them a lecture on how stupid it was to be going to college and doing something like that. I hope they learned."

No time of day appears to be more likely to see thefts than any other; fair sponsors around the country state that reports of stolen items are too rare to make an analysis (they often blame the artists for carelessness or a lack of vigilance), and insurers indicate that claims almost never take place. "We all know thefts happen, but we don't really know with what frequency," said Sally Bright, board chairman of the National Association of Independent Artists, many of whose members show and sell their work at arts and crafts fairs. Her own experience of theft took place in the middle of a fair when a woman came into her tent, picked up an object and walked out with it. "I caught her in the act. She was mentally disturbed."

There are different precautions to take during the day than in the evening. Bright recommended artists wear their money, such as in a money belt, and that they not let any other cash box, purse or register out of their sight. Having someone else in the tent, such as a friend or spouse, would provide another pair of eyes that could foil a thief, especially one who uses a partner to distract the artist. Art fair rules often prohibit the use of "proxies" -- someone, such as a dealer or agent or relative, manning the booth in place of the artist -- but a second person generally is allowed. Artists should not leave their tents unattended, and it would be unwise of them to ask neighboring exhibitors to watch their booths while they take a bathroom or lunch break. However, many fair sponsors offer "booth sitters," volunteers who agree to spell exhibitors for brief periods of time, although these sitters don't pitch the artwork in the tent and are not allowed to make sales in the artists' absence.

Protecting the contents of one's tent overnight is less clear-cut. Fewer people are around the spot and stop suspicious activity, and overnight security guards tend to be few in number. The two-day Greenwich Village Art Fair in Rockford, Illinois, for instance, holds 120 tents on the gated grounds of a municipal park and is guarded at night by two police officers. "The police officers are armed," said Nancy Sauer, one of the managers of the Art Fair.

The odds are not in an artist's favor: Store owners can lock their doors and pull down metal grates, but participants at fairs just zip their tents closed; even if they manage to put a lock on the zipper, the tent is just canvas, which any knife can cut through. "In the early years of doing fairs, I used to remove works every day from my booth," Hecker said. "The logistics were against me, though," as it required her to bring her van to the site every morning and evening, unpacking and repacking. "When you handle the works so much, you're very likely to cause damage, especially when you're doing it at the end of a long day."

Insurance policies that are relevant to artists and craftspeople who participate in arts and crafts fairs come in two basic types: Business owners, or general liability, policies provide property (business vehicle, fire damage, loss of equipment not including computers), medical (slip-and-falls) and product liability coverage for artists in their studios and at an exhibition site (any damage caused to the facility). Art fair sponsors usually require vendors to have these policies, with liability coverage of at least $1 million. The deductible -- the initial amount of money that an insurer is exempted from paying on a claim -- is variable, ranging from $250 to $1,000, as is the level of liability ($300,000, $500,000 or $1,000,000). Policies with lower premiums usually have higher deductibles and lower liability limits. For artists, losses from theft may not be recoverable but just a part of doing business, and they should put their faith in vigilance rather than in insurance providers.