03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Auschwitz Sign Theft: An Alternate Theory of the Crime

Along with the rest of the world, I was shocked to learn about the theft of the infamous, curving sign that tops the gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. In the dark of night, the perpetrators unscrewed the 16-foot metal sign bearing the slogan "Arbeit Macht Freit" ("work makes you free") and passed its 90 pounds through severed metal bars.

Why steal such a sign, with its mocking slogan? Many have speculated dark motives, ranging from Nazi fetishism, to a desire to make the evidence of genocide disappear.

I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be something deeply evil, but I've got a different idea -- mere speculation, mind you. But what if this wasn't a theft motivated by hate or political aim? What if it was more of an art theft?

There's an established genre of "outsider art", art produced by people who are institutionalized for various reasons, ranging from mental health to convicted criminals. A great deal of art was produced, under official and clandestine circumstances in concentration camps, but to my knowledge, the physical plant of the camps themselves is usually not included in that definition.

The field of industrial design was only just emerging at the time of the second World War, and so object likes signs, like light fixtures, like architectural details, were not considered "art" per se. And yet, when I visited Auschwitz a couple of years ago, I was struck by the Art Moderne influences in the sign itself -- take another look at it -- as well as in the concrete posts that held the electrified, barbed wire, the light posts and so on. Prisoners built the camp, including the sign, and the aesthetic of the time influenced their work. They were working under duress, and I'm of course not suggesting that these pieces can be divorced from their dark context. But could it be that the person or persons behind the theft were thinking along those lines?

UPDATED: The sign is found, cut into three pieces, like a commissioned theft, perhaps for "a crazed collector".