This story would never play on "America's Most Wanted." The wanted person is an art lover, not a criminal, after all.

But Oakland developer Phil Tagami is going all out to try to find the person who bought one-third of a very large, colorful triptych — a group of three paintings that go together — at the Oakland Museum of California's White Elephant sale early this year. And he has enlisted the help of the triptych's creator, Santa Cruz artist Robert Chiarito, to make the artwork whole again and find a public venue where it can be displayed.

Glen Isaacson, president of Bramalea Pacific, developer of the new 1111 Broadway office tower in downtown Oakland, paid Chiarito $25,000 to create the work for Café Fontebella in 1991.

The cafe lasted a little over two years, but it was one of Tagami's favorite eating and drinking spots, and the paintings figure prominently in his fond memories of the place.

The panels feature lively scenes reminiscent of Italian commedia del l'arte, with country folk wearing black masks with protruding noses, all set against the backdrop of rolling, Earth-toned Mediterranean hills of vineyards and olive trees.

"I fell in love with them at Café Fontebella," Tagami said.

The panel titled "Country Kitchen" has a couple in chef's hats making bread and roasting meats on a spit. "Bacchanal" is a revelry of music, food and wine. The third panel, "Acrobat's Dance" turns humanity on its head as human jesters perform handstands for a ringmaster, who is a white goat, and a pig playing the trumpet.


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Tagami offered to buy the paintings when he first heard rumblings that the cafe might close years ago. But one thing led to another, people got busy, and the nearly 8-foot square oil paintings, which were actually part of the wall, were carefully removed and put into storage after the building changed hands and the restaurant space was remodeled.

At some point they were donated to the Oakland Museum, which in turn put them up for sale at the museum's annual White Elephant sale.

Tagami said he recognized them immediately while half-watching a news tease about the sale. He rushed down first thing the next morning and there they were — or at least there two of them were. "Acrobat's Dance" had already been sold.

Tagami promptly bought the other two panels for $1,000 each and tried to find out the identity of the other buyer, to no avail.

So Tagami left his card and asked that it be passed along to the mystery buyer. Weeks and months went by with no phone call.

In the meantime, he contacted Chiarito, an art professor at San Jose State, and asked if he would be willing to create a replica of "Acrobat's Dance" that could be offered to the mystery buyer in exchange for the 1991 version. He did, for the tidy sum of $15,000, and now all three hang in Tagami's office in the Rotunda, looming above his desk.

Chiarito's artistic stylings have changed since he created the larger-than-life restaurant paintings, which are called figurative expressionism. He used color photos of the original panel to use as a guide, and although he says the new one is an "interpretation" of the original, it's pretty close. He said he knew that the art was going to be sold at the white elephant sale, but he didn't expect it would be piece by piece.

"I certainly didn't want them to be split up. It's really one piece," Chiarito said. "It would be terrific to get the panel back."

The goal, Tagami said, is to offer the replacement in exchange for the original panel, then find a suitable restaurant or public venue in which to display the large art. "We want to put the kids together again," Tagami said.

So, will the mystery buyer please step up?

Contact Tagami at 510-268-8500.

Reach Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441. Check out her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.

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Giovanna Borgna/ Staff
Artist Robert Chiarito shows a replacement panel of a triptych that he painted after the original was sold to an unknown buyer. Oakland developer Phil Tagami purchased the other two original panels and wants to find the mystery buyer to unite the triptych.