Where are the clowns?

That's the question investigators in Southern California are asking after a rash of--we're not joking here--clown-painting heists. In the past 10 days, some heartless (not to mention tasteless) thief has been plundering works by master harlequin painter Red Skelton.

Burglars swiped 10 Skelton originals (estimated value: $100,000) from a collector's home near Palm Springs last Friday night. That comes less than a week after a lithograph of one of the late comic's self-portraits (worth $2,850) was filched from an art gallery in San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles.

Authorities believe both thefts could be the work of serial clown-art crooks--especially since the burglars in the most crime ignored other artwork. "They picked and chose what they wanted and left more valuable paintings behind," a Riverside Sheriff's officer said.

Art appraisers say the value of Skelton's oeuvre has skyrocketed since his September 17 death. "It's morbid, but that's pretty much how the art world works," Aaron Duran, whose Las Vegas gallery is the largest seller of Skelton lithographs, told the Los Angeles Times.

The rubber-faced funnyman took up clown painting late in his life, cranking out some 1,000 oil paintings of his favorite subject. (Skelton's two most enduring characters were the clowns Freddie the Freeloader and Clem Kadiddlehopper.) Fifty-three of Skelton's sad-sack clown canvases were made into signed and certified lithographs. Clown aficionados shelled out big bucks for the images: The lithos sold for upwards of $995 each, while the oil originals fetched up to $80,000.

Some highfalutin critics may have questioned the artistic merit of Skelton's work, but he laughed all the way to the bank. One year Skelton made $2.5 million from art sales.

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