Art crime in New Zealand - there's more than you think
Ricardo Sannd was beautifying his home in anticipation of his new Uzbekistani wife's arrival when he stole a $2 million Tissot painting from the Auckland Art Gallery in 1998.
He parked his motorbike out front, brazenly walked inside with a gun, cut the Tissot from its frame and was back on his bike and gone before anyone could stop him.
The painting was recovered in a sad state from under his bed and delivered into the loving hands of conservator Sarah Hillary, who spent two years repairing it, painstakingly piecing together the tiny bits police kept finding at the scene.
You may think New Zealand is not big or fast enough to have much of a history of art crime but we do — and it has been gathered for the first time in a book out next month: Penelope Jackson's Art Thieves, Fakes and Fraudsters. She will speak about it at Auckland's Going West writers festival next weekend.
"There was an outpouring of grief from the public," when the Tissot, Still on Top, was stolen, says Jackson, an art historian who was director of the Tauranga Art Gallery. She says the fact that art objects are often unique and irreplaceable means their loss can be more devastating than other valuables.
Just in the past six weeks there have been four instances of art crime that have reached the media, including the defacing of the Captain Cook statue in Gisborne and the theft of rare paintings from the Te Kuiti boardroom of the Ngati Maniapoto Trust.
"It's very hard to measure those we don't know about," Jackson says of the art crime that is not reported due to embarrassment, or fear of reputation damage.
"Anywhere there is art history, there is a history of art crime, unfortunately."
We don't always take art crime as seriously as we might; that was certainly the case with Karl Sim, the prolific forger who was best known for reproducing paintings by CF Goldie but is thought to have copied the work of 50 or 60 artists.
"He became a bit of a minor celebrity. He enjoyed the attention, he didn't really try to hide it," says Jackson. "In his later years he'd go to Rotary and give talks. He saw it all as a bit of a joke. He managed to sell works to the National Art Gallery that the professionals thought were authentic. That was his objective. He was laughing all the way to the bank."
Each year, there is an exhibition of his fakes in Mangaweka, his hometown, where his tricksy cleverness is celebrated.
A case that particularly sticks in Jackson's mind is the 1942 theft of the Solomon J Solomon painting Psyche from the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. The elegant gold frame was left behind, and remains in the collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery.
Trying to reconstruct the crime many decades later, Jackson clambered all over the roof of the McDougall and realised the thief, or thieves, could not have got in and out the way it had always been assumed.
"Psyche is one of my favourite cases because it's full of intrigue — a real mystery," she says. "[Because] the exquisite frame still exists, there's a sense of hope that one day it might appear, albeit improbable now."
Jackson has curated an exhibition about stolen art for the Waikato Museum called The Empty Frame, which features the Psyche frame and opens at the end of September.
She has a particular soft spot for private collectors who have lost personal treasures: the Mosgiel couple who had their Goldie stolen at an open home, and couldn't claim insurance because they had invited people in, for example. The disputes over inherited art that tear great holes in families.
While Jackson has written a book about the history of New Zealand art crime, she is dedicated to preventing future crime as well. She is a trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, which aims to raise awareness of art crime. The trust promotes research and hosts a symposium each year.
"Anyone who is considering a purchase should ask more questions around provenance," Jackson says, noting that unlike other countries, New Zealand does not have an art loss register, which people can check before buying a piece of art, to see if it's been stolen. Nor do we have a dedicated police art squad, which leads to amusing anomalies such as the theft of hair extensions being filed as an art crime.
"We put more care into researching car purchases than art, which might go for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars."
* Penelope Jackson's book Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters is out next month. She appears at Auckland's Going West Festival on September 10, in conversation with Dr Robin Woodward, a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Auckland.