Arrrr! The Good Ship La Contessa got Burned

La Contessa is remembered as one of the greatest ever art cars. A half-size replica pirate ship, sailing through the desert. It famously got banned from Burning Man, then was stored on a nearby ranch. The figurehead statue was stolen from the ranch, and later a photograph appeared in an ePlaya thread (and then was removed) – it is one of the most coveted stolen art works in San Francisco today. The lady who owned the ranch sold it, and the new owner gave her a lifetime lease of her historic farmhouse. Then that burned down, and she moved out. The Burner owners of La Contessa obviously thought that the verbal agreement with her that it would be fine to store their vehicle there, transferred automatically into a binding contract with the new owner of the land – even after La Contessa got banned from Burning Man and was not being used, and even when the owner is notoriously anti-Burning Man. To me this seems like a pretty big assumption to make. Also it’s the Wild West out there, and if you’ve seen a few Westerns you know that if they burn down the farmhouse of a little old lady, they’re probably gonna burn some abandoned hippy art too.

Still, common sense goes out the window when there’s money to be had in a lawsuit. They are seeking around $1 million, apparently on the basis that the ranch owner has a $7 million yacht. The trial is set for July 30, 2012.

If you’re interested in the whole story, Scribe has written a brilliant piece on it.

La Contessa was a Spanish galleon, amazingly authentic and true to 16th-century design standards in all but a couple respects. It was half the size of the ships that carried colonizers to this continent and pirates through the Caribbean. And it was built around a school bus, designed to trawl the Burning Man festival and the Black Rock Desert environs, where it became perhaps the most iconic and surreal art piece in the event’s history.The landcraft wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. It was heavy and turned slowly. The person driving the school bus couldn’t see much, so a navigator sitting on the bow needed to communicate to the driver by radio. Those sitting in the crow’s nest felt the vessel gently sway as if it were rocking on waves.

Inside, it was opulent, with a fancy bar, gilded frames, velvet trim—a cross between an elaborate bordello and a captain’s stateroom. And adorning its bow was a priceless work of art, a figure of a woman by San Francisco sculptor Monica Maduro.

La Contessa was a controversial vessel – by the sound of it, the owners wholeheartedly embraced the piratical theme, and this may have earned them some enemies.

The ship and its captains and crew—most of whom are members of San Francisco’s popular Extra Action Marching Band—hit more than their share of storms in the desert, developing a storied outlaw reputation that eventually got them banned from Burning Man. By 2005, much of the galleon’s crew was unsure if they’d ever return. The ship was no longer welcome at the Ranch staging area run by the event’s organizers and unable to legally navigate the highways without being dismantled. So it returned to its berth on Grant Ranch, on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where Joan Grant had welcomed La Contessaand two other large artworks since 2003.

Then late last summer, someone looted the ship, stealing Maduro’s piece, which was hidden deep within the ship’s hold. Maduro and others have kept the theft a secret until now in the hope that they might find it, fearing that publicity and police involvement might drive the piece further underground, particularly after the reported sighting of a photo of the figurehead on, with a caption indicating it was the latest addition to someone’s living room.

And in early December, apparently without warning, prominent local landowner Mike Stewart—new owner of the ranch—set La Contessa on fire and had her charred remains hauled away. 

The pirates have had one lawsuit thrown out of Court already. The judge ruled that turning a bus into an art car, did not remove the utility of the bus. And therefore it was “Applied Art” and the owner was entitled to burn it.

…the stronger federal claim under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) having been thrown out by Judge McQuaid. The judge ruled La
 Contessa was “applied art”, which is specifically excluded under VARA. In dismissing the VARA claim the Court held:

A bus is a utilitarian object, the purpose of which is to move and transport people. La Contessa was built on top of a bus and retained the bus’ innate function of movement and transport. La Contessa was thus a functional object. . . . By virtue of its retention of the ability to move and transport people, however slowly, it remained a utilitarian object and thus constituted applied Art. In addition, to the extent Plaintiffs assert that La Contessa was not applied art because it was a venue for performances, such an object is also functional and would constitute applied art, as well. Accordingly, as La Contessa was applied art, it was not a work of visual art, and Plaintiffs are thus not eligible for relief under 17 U.S.C. §106A [VARA].

They’re hoping this time round, the court will take a different view under a “conversion” claim. The essence of their claim is that La Contessa was a valuable art work, not just an old junk bus that could not be driven off the property because it was not road-worthy.

Despite this setback the trial will go forward as to whether Stewart illegally deprived Plaintiffs of their rights to the art piece by setting La Contessa on fire on December 5, 2006. One of the interesting twists involved in the case relate to the real property rights of Stewart as the land owner, a hot button topic in Nevada. These rights are pitted against the undisputed fact that Cheffins and Jones had clear authority to store La Contessa on the property from the late Joan Grant. Ms. Grant previously owned the land, but sold to Stewart and continued to live there under legal agreement. She left the property when her residence caught on fire and did not return to rebuild. Plaintiffs and friends had consistently visited La Contessa, in between it’s appearances at Burning Man, and were actively looking for an alternative location for display and/or storage when it was destroyed. It also should be noted that Stewart made no effort to contact Plaintiffs, or anyone for that matter, before torching La Contessa.

There also remains the issue of a punitive damages award against Defendant Michael Stewart, a wealthy businessman and land owner. Perhaps ironically, after burning La Contessa, Mr. Stewart attempted to sell his own yacht, Sierra Rose, for 7 Million dollars.

Their case seems to hinge on a dead lady telling them it was fine for them to store their million dollar art work outside in the paddock on a farm she neither owned nor lived in any more.

Their lawyer is working for free, if you want to help defend Burners against the evil rancher arsonist, you can chip in for their expenses:

our steadfast legal superhero, paul quade, is working pro-bono on the case, there are still some costs to cover (relocating greg and simon to reno for a month, costs for transporting and sheltering/feeding witnesses, covering the lawyer’s expenses to subpoena witnesses and other small expenses). we had a benefit, but didn’t raise quite enough. we have a paypal account: . if you are moved, we are humbly accepting donations in any amount. we need about $4000. if you donate, please make a note to us with your mailing address and you will receive a special gift with our kind regards.

Chicken John had some things to say on the matter. He breaks it down for us, in five parts no less:

A stunning vessel. Beautifully executed. Irresponsably driven by intoxicated douchebags. I loved to look at it, but I’m glad it’s gone without killing anyone. I’m all for fairness and justice, but there is probably another side to this story. There always is. It is unlikely that without any contract or any proof that the La Contessa paid any rent for it’s storage that the owners have any recourse save for environmental action called “intentional burning” which you need a permit for. But that doesn’t get anyone a billion dollars. It’s always like this… something done for love changes when the ability to get money appears. Then everything is different. Histroy gets re-written. Alliances are made. Some steamrolling, maybe. And a lawyer coaches the re-write. And likely, the opposition will claim that the vessel was abandoned on his property, he contacted the parties involved who didn’t respond so he torched it.

The oppositions’ lawyer will encourage him to settle, and he probably will to save the legal fees. The fees would probably be around $40,000. So that’s what the settlement will probably be for. Half or more will go to the lawyer. So Simon and Greg will get $10K each. I guess that’s worth it. Somehow. I dunno… it just doesn’t feel like a revolution to me. It doesnt’ seem like this is a tool to embrace possibility. This isn’t exactly a good example as a template for
unrestricted generosity… But it is their right to sue. I don’t wanna sound like a killjoy… but if that thing crashed into a rave dome because Simon was driving it drunk and it killed 30 people… we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. I’m really angry about it. And if afforded an avenue to complain about it, I will exploit it although this comment will likely get deleted.

I just hated that all the cops were right. That people do drugs and drive things around out there. That we can’t be trusted. That we are just lucky. La Contessa, although brilliantly conceived and executed was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen. The pilot who controlled the bus that was under it was blind. Someone would stand on the top and navigate with a walkie talkie. You couldn’t hear shit. They had a complex system of tapping on the deck or something. It was stupid. Funny now, sure. But then, it was just greasy kid stuff. It was a disregard for human life and all that everyone worked for out there. The cops are right… we can’t manage the event or the people. The Extra Action guys are just too cool for school and always have been. You can’t tell them anything. You can’t. They already know everything

 When I asked Simon to please stop driving his responce was “Make me.” If there was some way I could have made him, I would have. But if I tussled with him, he had 60 idiots to back him up and I had nothing. I stayed on board as a witness so that if a bad thing happened I’d have been right there and maybe could have stopped it or at the very least testified to make sure if an accident happened that I could finger Simon. If an accident would have happened, Simon could just get out of the drivers seat and claim he didn’t know who was driving. I saw it all clearly. It was gross.
So yea. Lawsuit for $900,000… sure. Friends of La Contessa. Sure. Friends. Friends don’t like friends drive 130 of their friends on a prop @ 40 MPH high on mushrooms blind. I just don’t wanna be guilty of towing the party line here. Things could have gone WAY differently. And what if they get $900,000 (just that guys property, likely)? Rebuild it? OK fine. Can you promise to put one of those breath-a-lizer things on it so everyone can no that it won’t start unless the pilot blows clean?
Here’s a case that shows clearly, guys with $7 million yachts don’t think like most Burners. These Burners thought “that is one of the best art cars, it’s sacred and magical, no one would ever hurt it, that would be bad karma. This nice old lady said it would be alright to keep it there so we’ve left it for years even though we don’t take it to Burning Man any more because we got kicked out, and even though the guy who owns the ranch tried to shut Burning Man down and the lady’s house burned down and she left town. What? Something happened to it? That’s not our fault, better sue!”
Guys who are the biggest landowner in the area think “this piece of junk has been on my property for years, just like that farmhouse which I gave away a lifetime lease on. Well the farmhouse burned down mysteriously, the lady moved out and died, now I’ve just got to do something about that hippy junk. Why don’t I go ask the sherriff what the law is about burning down junk left for years on my property?”
Here’s what the local Sherriff had to say:

Washoe County sheriff’s deputy Tracy Bloom said that he considers the fire to be third-degree arson, which is punishable by one to six years in prison under Nevada law. Yet Bloom said he believes Stewart thought he had a right to burn and remove the seemingly abandoned vehicle and therefore lacks the criminal intent needed to have charges brought against him.

“According to him, they had attempted to contact the owner to no avail, so he decided to set it on fire,” Bloom said. He wrote in his police report, “I asked Stewart if he was the one that set the La Contessa on fire and he said, ‘YES, I DID.’ I asked him why he decided to burn it. Stewart said, ‘Because the property was abandoned and left there,’ and ‘I was forced to clean it up.’”

The report indicates that Bloom, who lives in Gerlach, helped organize a community cleanup at that time, in which a scrap dealer named Stan Leavers was removing old cars and other junk. “Stewart said that was the biggest reason for burning the La Contessa so that it could be removed by Leavers,” Bloom wrote. Nonetheless, he said that didn’t give Stewart the right to burn the artwork.

“I told him, ‘You can’t just do that, and if I found any intent or malice on this, you’re going to jail,’ “ Bloom said. “But I don’t believe there was any malicious intent. If I felt like there was any malicious intent, I would have arrested him right there. I thought that boat was really cool. It was one of the coolest things out there.”

La Contessa was buried at sea and given a Viking/pirate funeral.

I’ll leave you with a tale about life on the “high seas” with La Contessa on a whale hunt- sounds like an early precursor to the Krug dinner.

The Spanish Galleon !! Now THAT’s a tale.

La Contessa was built by my friend Simon, and some members of his current band, Extra Action Marching Band. Simon once led a band called Crash Worship – heavy drumming with ritualistic stage performances – that was Liz Nevis’ favorite. She trained me as a deejay on KFJC.

I saw them twice and the last time in a lock-down event, was something etched indelibly in my mind.

Simon’s new band – 30-60+ members depending on their availability, sobriety, and the venue, are a full-on marching band, drum core, brass, a troupe of super-sexy girls and often a boy or two as the Flag Team, and oh my god even a lead singer!!! ok, he’s actually on a megaphone. But since they play “39 Lashes” from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, I taunt him mercilessly to sing “Memories” from Cats. [and one intoxicated Thanksgiving evening up in the Sierra Gold country where a bunch of us went to Flash’s ranch, he DID sing it !!!! by a campfire with actual witnesses !!

Anyway, Simon and the Extra Action Marching Band built La Contessa to be an exact to scale model of a 15th Century Spanish Galleon … which was mostly a bordello-looking thing inside – all wood and red velvet. It had masts, a huge wheel, a crow’s nest, rigging … and the structure was concocted on a school bus. It was insanely beautiful. Because the driver couldn’t see out of the bus, the navigation was “performed” by someone on the bowsprit – which was host to a stunningly beautiful figurehead of a woman holding a lantern in front of her along the prow – with a radio to call out directions to the driver.

The Galleon was built for the 2002 theme of “The Floating World”. A few years later, someone maliciously burned it to the ground on the Nevada ranch where it was being stored. That’s grounds for a lawsuit I believe Simon is filing. I hope he does !!

In the summer of 2003, La Contessa, and the Great White Whale, another schoolbus turned into an enormous whale with an articulated tail sprung on Cadillac springs, and built by Flash and Tom Kennedy, invited some guests to an extravagant dinner out on the desert following a WHALE HUNT !! from the Galleon. The invitation itself is something of wonder, and something i will always treasure.

Dr. Hal Robbins, a legendary figure in our society does a weekly show in one venue or another called “Ask Dr. Hal” in which attendees write a request on a slip, and hopefully pay a small amount for his trouble, and Dr. Hal will answer *anything*. Once i gave him the question: How much wood would a wood buck chuck if a wood buck did eat wood? And the dollar was folded into an origami buck. Yes, a male deer. There was proof in the intricate folds 🙂 His answer should have been recorded. It went on for 10 minutes or so, starting with the creation of modern forests in the Jurassic Era and continuing through the evolution of deer !!

So on the event of the Whale Hunt, Dr, Hal stood upon the decks of La Contessa and recited, by memory, in it’s entirety, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere) as he explained in a preamble. Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself would have been blown away. The funny part, was we kinda got lost and then ran out of gas out in the playa. Just as Hal was saying “Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” we all realized we hadn’t brought enough water. It was a very effective way to induce empathy to the poor Mariner’s plight. Luckily Tom Kennedy came to our rescue in a few Art Cars he’d also built, and shuttled us back to a fabulous dinner with table cloths and wine, set up in the middle of the desert. 

Video of finding La Contessa’s Ashes

…and her “burial at sea”

16 comments on “Arrrr! The Good Ship La Contessa got Burned

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  5. Hi. This story fascinates me. Do you have a source for your images? Needed for a class presentation mucho mas pronto, if possible. Thanks.

    • “Do you have a source for your images? Needed for a class presentation mucho mas pronto…”

      Use in a classroom presentation would generally come under “Fair Use” of copyrighted material. Since LE (or the legal equivalent) can freely lie to gain evidence, I would guess that you are instead gathering material for a lawsuit. Maybe a Borg lawyer looking for some nuisance suit based on their claim to all pictures taken at the NV burn?

      To prove me wrong, tell us why you would need a source for the images in a “class presentation” …that was not in a legal setting.

      • You sound hella paranoid. You’re wrong. I’m doing a class presentation on ship figureheads. That’s it. My instructor said all images need at least a date attached to them. That is ALLLLLLLLLLLLLL. Sheesh. And I’m up at 12:50 trying to finish this damn presentation even though I have TWO other quizzes tomorrow. And I came back to your page in the simple hope that you’d at least be able to give me a date so I can use the image in my presentation. But, thanks to this paranoiac drama, I will have to remove that slide AND the cool story to go with it. Satisfied?!?!!?

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