Two valuable Gottfried Lindauer paintings stolen in Auckland ram raid burglary
CORRECTION AND APOLOGY: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Tame Iti stole Colin McCahon's Urewera mural from a Department of Conservation visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana in 1997. In fact, Tame Iti negotiated the artwork's return. We apologise to Tame Iti for the error.
There was "no evidence of political motivation" in the theft of two valuable Gottfried Lindauer paintings from an Auckland auction house, police say.
Thieves smashed into the International Art Centre in Parnell and took the paintings about 4am on Saturday.
The two portraits, Chieftainess Ngatai – Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure, date from 1884.
International Art Centre spokesman Ian Stuart said the paintings, which were due to be auctioned on April 4, were worth between $350,000 and $450,000 each.
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Police said officers had recovered the stolen vehicle used in the ram raid but were looking for another vehicle that was seen leaving the scene.
"Police are seeking any information relating to the theft of these two paintings and would like to hear from anybody that was in the Parnell area between 3.30 and 4am this morning or anyone who may have information about the current whereabouts of these paintings."
Auckland Central police area commander Inspector Matt Srhoj said Interpol had been notified of the thefts.
Chieftainess Ngatai – Raure by Gottfried Lindauer
The ram raid had happened "very quickly", but there was evidence of "significant planning", he said.
Lindauer painted hundreds of portraits of Maori chiefs and leaders in 19th and early 20th centuries.
Auckland Art Gallery director Rhana Devenport said the paintings were national treasures.
Chief Ngatai-Raure by Gottfried Lindauer.
"They document an important period in our country's history and are proudly displayed in gallery and museum collections throughout New Zealand."
International Art Centre director Richard Thomson said while Lindauer's Maori art did not yet command prices as high as Charles Frederick Goldie's, art lovers and investors recognised his works as some of the finest portraits of Maori kaumatua (elders).
"His techniques are different from Goldie but he was just as passionate about his work and they are just as compelling," Thomson said.
"Like Goldie, Lindauer's art is mesmerising and these two artists provide a significant and critically important record of Maori culture."
Lindauer was born in the Czech Republic, then called Bohemia, in 1839, and studied as a teenager at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
He left for New Zealand in 1874 to avoid an Austrian military draft and settled in Woodville, north of Wellington, where he died in 1926.
Lindauer was commissioned by prominent Maori chiefs and was known for his detailed portrayal of their moko, clothing, ornaments and weapons.
Chieftainess Ngatai – Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure were believed to depict members of the Ngatai family of Tauranga, who were related to Chief Hori Ngatai of the Ngaiterangi tribe.
Chief Hori was a distinguished warrior and leader who helped defeat the British at Gate Pa in 1864.
Anyone with information was asked to call Auckland Police on 09 302 6832 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
ART CRIME: MORE COMMON THAN YOU THINK
Art historian and author Penelope Jackson said art crime - including theft, fraud and forgery - was more widespread in New Zealand than most people knew.
"Anywhere there is art history, there is a history of art crime, unfortunately."
As art objects were often unique and irreplaceable, their loss could be more devastating than other valuables, she said.
Jackson said there was little the thieves would make from selling the Lindauer paintings, if that was the intention of the heist.
She said it could be the work of an opportunist.
"People would think stealing paintings was a quick way to make money but any buyer would be foolish to buy 'hot art' - the photos of the stolen paintings are already on several news websites.
"Trying to get rid of them would be very difficult and the burglars obviously have gone to a lot of trouble planning the heist, but I don't think they have properly thought out how to get rid of it."
Jackson believed it was the biggest art theft so far this year, and that it could be politically motivated.
One of New Zealand's most high-profile art heists was that committed by Ricardo Sannd, also known as Ricardo Romanov, in 1998.
He walked into the Auckland Art Gallery with a gun, cut a $2 million Tissot painting from its frame and made a getaway on a motorbike.
He was arrested a week later and the valuable painting was found underneath his bed.
Sannd was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for the theft.
In 1997, Tuhoe activist Te Kaha stole Colin McCahon's Urewera mural from a Department of Conservation visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana.
It was returned 15 months later following negotiations with arts patron Jenny Gibbs.