America, gold toilet
The 18-karat toilet, titled "America," by Maurizio Cattelan in the restroom of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York Image Credit: AP

A solid 18-karat gold toilet, titled "America" by its creator Maurizio Cattelan, was stolen early Saturday from an exhibit at Blenheim Palace, the Oxfordshire birthplace and family home of Winston Churchill.

The toilet was part of a larger exhibit featuring Cattelan's work that began on Thursday.

As befits someone who would make a toilet out of gold, Cattelan's response to the theft was a bit, um, cheeky.

"At first, when they woke me up this morning with the news," he said, "I thought it was a prank: Who's so stupid to steal a toilet? I had forgotten for a second that it was made out of gold."

He said of the work: "'America' was the 1% for the 99%, and I hope it still is. I want to be positive and think the robbery is a kind of Robin Hood-inspired action."

Cattelan said the theft was not part of a prank, a la Banksy shredding his own art at auction.

"I wish it was a prank," he said, adding that the story "is deadly serious if even a little bit surreal since the subject of the robbery was a toilet."

The police said in a statement that they were investigating the burglary and that a 66-year-old man had been arrested but not charged. The toilet has not been recovered.

Jess Milne, a detective inspector, noted that the toilet had been plumbed to the building, so the theft "caused significant damage and flooding." He said the police believed a "group of offenders" using at least two vehicles was behind the theft.

The cost 

Pure gold is currently valued at nearly $1,500 per ounce, and 18-karat gold is 75 per cent pure, said Peter Pienta, an accredited precious metals dealer in Wakefield, Massachusetts, who has been buying and selling gold for nearly 50 years.

Cattelan said the piece was made out of 103 kilograms of gold, which would make the toilet worth more than $4 million if it were melted down, according to Pienta's calculation.

"That is a very, very valuable toilet," Pienta said. "If they had a refinery or gold smelting equipment ready, it could be melted into gold bars in days and there would be no way to trace them. They could really go into any place that would buy a bullion."

Dominic Hare, the chief executive of Blenheim Palace, said he hoped the art piece would be recovered.

"It is deeply ironic that a work of art portraying the American dream and the idea of an elite object made available to all should be almost instantly snatched away and hidden from view," he said.

The toilet was installed in September 2016 at the Guggenheim in New York City, where it was an instant Instagram splash.

Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim's artistic director and chief curator, wrote on the museum's website in 2017 that "more than 100,000 people have waited patiently in line for the opportunity to commune with art and with nature."

The artwork is based on a common Kohler toilet and was created by a foundry in Florence. The work's value was not disclosed, but Spector described it as "millions of dollars' worth of gold."

The Manhattan museum declined to comment on Saturday.

Cattelan said the work had been sent back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and polished after being exhibited at the Guggenheim. "It definitely needed some restoration and rest, too," he said.

He had helped set up the new exhibition, he said, and was likely the last one to use the toilet.

"I promise I have an alibi for the night."