Return of stolen paintings relief for artist
Paper Clips series - Looking back at 2003CHRIS HYDE
In 2003, Palmerston North police negotiated the return of five paintings by Wellington artist Pippa Sanderson that were stolen from Te Manawa six months earlier. In the last of the Manawatu Standard's Paper Clips series Chris Hyde talks to Sanderson about the experience.
Pippa Sanderson still has no idea what the thieves' motivations were.
In time she has come to think that it was a spontaneous act, a snatch-and-grab of five of her 180mm by 360mm paintings, which the thieves decided on a whim that they liked.
The heist left Te Manawa red-faced - at the end of August 2002 the Palmerston North museum and art gallery had never had a piece of work thieved.
"It was terrible for the gallery as the security ripples went around," Sanderson says.
"Having security cameras on 24 hours a day is hugely expensive and I felt really sorry for Te Manawa that it happened."
The paintings would have been easy to chuck in a backpack.
But the fact that someone bothered still leaves her bemused and somewhat flattered.
"It's just such an unusual thing. Sometimes you hear of it happening with hugely famous paintings.
"In that way it made me feel a little special that someone wanted to steal them. It's a huge risk to take for something that you like."
The paintings were made up of a series of landscapes from Sanderson's former home in Hawke's Bay, dotted with bird-like, masked creatures.
They were taken from the upstairs area of the gallery, which at the time was running an exhibition called Returning in Disguise.
"They were quite personal paintings - most work is for an artist. They came out of a series of work I did about returning to Hawke's Bay but not feeling comfortable about it.
"The worst thing was that three of them were already owned by other people and I felt really bad for them."
After the gallery went on record saying it had upgraded security arrangements, Sanderson thought that was the last she would hear of it.
She was warned by police that even though they had suspects it was likely the highly recognisable paintings, worth about $1000 each, would be dumped because of the publicity.
Then on March 12, 2003, Sanderson received a call from a Manawatu Standard reporter.
Palmerston North police had negotiated their return.
"It was a surprise and such a relief, because I really did think they were gone," Sanderson says.
"Six months is a long time.
"The police gave me the option of going for prosecution, but they warned me against doing that because if I'd chosen to do that it was quite likely they would have got angry and the paintings would have been destroyed.
"I went for the anonymous return. They came back and there was a little wee chip off a couple of them but otherwise they were fine."
Sanderson holds no grudge against the unknown and unconvicted thieves or against the museum they were stolen from.
She returned to Te Manawa, curating a performance-based "spooky" exhibition at the art gallery called The Blue Room in 2009.
There were no such problems with that one. She now works out of the Dowse Art Museum as Hutt City's community arts adviser.
As for the paintings - she has sold them.
Did the fact they were stolen have an impact on their sale? Did it make them more attractive for buyers?
"It could well have."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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