A Slow But Steady Thieving

Four bronze tortoises regularly disappear from Huntington Park's fountain.

Fountain of the Tortoises (Photo by Daniel Kim)

Smack in the center of what the Chronicle once called “the most urbane and groomed of all San Francisco squares,” the Fountain of the Tortoises is a whimsical sculpture, visited daily by Nob Hill’s dog owners whose purebreed labradoodles often lift a leg against its curved concrete edge. A replica of Rome’s Fontana della Tartarughe, the art piece was first discovered by Ethel Crocker (the wife of a railroad magnate) on a trip to a villa in the Italian countryside. Taken with its design, she purchased it for her California home, and her heirs later gave it to the city, which installed it in Huntington Park in 1955.

But the statue — four naked young men straddling dolphins as they reach for tortoises on the lip of the 2,000-pound bowl — is not just frequented by locals and tourists, but also by criminals who regularly snatch the bronze reptiles. The first record of such a robbery took place only a few years after the fountain was installed, sometime before 1960.

And since then, the thefts have continued, decade after decade. A College of San Mateo student is reported to have returned a stolen bronze boy in 1975, claiming he acquired it from “nameless persons” for $350.

In the 1980s, a major park renovation included a restoration of the fountain — and a tricky re-creation of those constantly missing tortoises. Kate Patterson, communications director for the San Francisco Arts Commission, tells the tale.

“Four bronze turtles, stolen way back when, were restored after another copy of the fountain was located at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus headquarters in Sarasota, Fla.,” she says. “The tortoises were removed, recast in bronze, and new copies were sent to San Francisco.”  

The event was such a celebration that spring water from the original Rome fountain was flown in to mix with the fountain’s water.

But — guess what? Shortly after the renovation took place, the tortoises were stolen, again.

In the past decade alone, eight of the quaint bronze tortoises have been pinched from the sculpture. In 2007, two were taken, then replaced after the Arts Commission recast the remaining ones. Seven years later, all four tortoises were purloined, but replaced in 2015. In 2016, two tortoises were swiped, and last month, they were finally replaced.

At $3,000 a pop, they’re causing an endless headache for the Arts Commission.

While the skilled restoration artists laughed last week as they held a bronze tortoise high over the mesh green fence surrounding the fountain, sharing the joke that is the perpetually stolen Testudinidae, it is a shame that the shelled reptiles so often go missing. They’re pretty cute, honestly, as they scramble over the lip of the fountain’s bowl. And without them, the four boys’ reach — whose motives remain unknown — falls flat, as their grasp catches only air.

Check out more stories in our feature on Nob Hill here:

Lights, Camera, Action at the Fairmont Hotel
With more than 10 major films shot at the Nob Hill site, Hollywood has designated it San Francisco’s reigning cinematic hotel.

The Ascent to Jones
Scaling Nob Hill in pursuit of its flattest blocks.

The Gardens of Fairmont
The Nob Hill hotel has a picturesque rooftop park open to locals.

Don’t Miss the AIDS Memorial Quilt Exhibit at Grace Cathedral
By bathing 15 panels of the quilt in light, the stained glass windows sanctify the 20,000 San Franciscans who died in the modern plague.

Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: Nob Hill
From the House of Prime Rib to Buffalo Theory, Nob Hill’s food scene might be more diverse than you think.

Nob Hill Has One Grocery Store, and It’s Proudly Independent
Sometimes described as a cross between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, Le Beau Market has a rooftop garden.

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