The New York Times reported Sunday that the Dali artwork and its golden frame had been in a locked case in an area of the jail that would normally only by used by jail personnel. A copy of a depiction of Jesus on a cross was stapled up in place of the Dali.
Thomas Antenen, spokesman for the Department of Correction, told the Times: "It's a great mystery at this point. It looks like the painting has been replaced by a copy. That appears to be the case based on a consensus of non-expect opinion, people who work near the painting and see it day-in and day-out."
"What's there ain't the real thing," an unnamed corrections official told the newspaper. Jail personnel said the replacement art was "too new and too bright."
The Dali painting was appraised by $175,000 in 1985, but in 2001 the Times quoted an art expert as saying the picture was worth at least three times that amount.
Antenen said the artwork was kept in a locked case in a lobby not used by prisoners or their visitors, but mainly by jail personnel. There are no security cameras in that room but the case is across from a checkpoint staffed 24 hours a day.
"It's not Alcatraz or Sing Sing but it is a secure institution," Antenen told the Times.
Dali made the painting in 1965 after he had been invited to a dinner party but had been too sick to attend. One of those at the dinner, however, was a Department of Correction Commissioner Anna Moscowitz, who believed that art could be a rehabilitative therapy, the Times said. She wanted Dali to visit Rikers to speak to the prisoners.
While the trip was scheduled, Dali was still too ill to take part, but he sent the picture instead, with the notation "For the dinning room of the Prisoners Rikers Ysland" in the lower left corner. The artwork was displayed in the dining room for 16 years before it was moved to the lobby area.