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Joke's (Probably) On You, Houston Renoir Thief!

A Renoir painting was stolen from what we assume is a ritzy westside home earlier this month.

So it's probably now hanging on the wall of a unfathomably rich mysterious Russian or Japanese financier, right?

Nope. It's probably sitting in the burglar's garage, according to one of the foremost art-crime experts.

Anthony Amore, author of Stealing Rembrandts, tells us it's highly unlikely the guy who stole the painting will find a buyer.

"These things are very difficult to fence," he says. "I tell people there is no Dr. No, but that's what people think -- that there's a dastardly villain in an underground lair with priceless stolen art on the walls."

In looking at 100 years of Rembrandt thefts, he said, the stolen art was never found in the home of some evil rich person. Almost always it was found in the home of whoever stole it or ordered it stolen.

Paintings are not like jewels when it comes to fencing them -- "Paintings are unique and identifiable," Amore says. "You'd be asking someone to pay a lot of money for something they can't display."

(By the way, there's no real reliable verdict on how much the stolen Renoir -- called Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair -- is worth, but a $25,000 reward is being offered.)

Art-theft experts like to say the guy who took the Houston Renoir "hasn't stolen a painting, he's stolen a problem."

Perhaps the best result for the guy, Amore says, would be what happened recently in Los Angeles: The thief left his stolen painting at a church and told cops where they could pick it up, and is currently hoping their interest in finding him has waned.

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly