Thieves with Cavalier attitude

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Thieves with Cavalier attitude


May 30, 2010
IT IS the million-dollar theft that has everyone stumped.

Three years after A Cavalier, a 17th-century Dutch masterpiece insured for $1.4 million, was stolen from the Art Gallery of NSW, hopes of recovering it have gone, even though it is listed on the FBI’s top 10 list of art crimes.

”I have to say that I would be surprised if the picture turns up,” said Edmund Capon, the gallery’s director. ”It’s a very unfortunate thing.”

Detective Senior Constable Jeroen Huisman said NSW police had no leads or did not know if the self-portrait by Frans van Mieris – which measures just 20 x 16 centimetres – was still in Australia.

”It would most definitely be difficult to sell to a legitimate collector/buyer as it is currently still on international wanted lists including Interpol and the FBI,” Constable Huisman said.

Director of the international Art Loss Register Julian Radcliffe said criminal gangs stole art from galleries to use as collateral in drugs and arms deals. Eventually, perhaps years later, they would try to put it back on the market.

The lone masked intruder who stole five paintings worth $120 million from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris two weeks ago may have been working on behalf of overseas criminal gangs from the Balkans or the Russian mafia.

In contrast, the Australian Cultural Terrorists stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 as a protest. Police recovered it from a locker at Spencer Street railway station a few days later, but the thieves were never caught.

The Australian Institute of Criminology estimated that $20 million worth of art is stolen in Australia each year, while the FBI estimates art worth more than $9 billion is stolen globally. ”Art is stolen because it is valuable, portable, and not well protected compared to a bank vault full of cash,” Mr Radcliffe said.

The Art Loss Register lists Picasso as the most stolen artist followed by Karel Appel, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali.

Like the paintings stolen from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, A Cavalier was vulnerable to thieves because of poor security. It was screwed to the wall by just two keyhole plates that were visible and accessible in a room with no camera surveillance and a guard only occasionally present.

Mr Capon said the NSW government had ignored the gallery’s pleas for more money to guard against theft.

”We were very conscious of the fact we were understaffed and had no technology in terms of security and yet we had all these priceless paintings,” he said. ”That situation has been rectified but it should have been rectified without having to pay that price.”

Criminologist Professor Kenneth Polk said the probability of finding art stolen in Australia was ”very low because we have no loss register to serve as our memory”.

The Art Loss Register points to two works by Cezanne and Manet, stolen in the late 1970s, which were recovered two decades later. Incredibly, Picasso’s Woman in White Reading a Book was found in 2005, 65 years after it was stolen.

Earlier this month, the $200,000 Girl in Sunlight by Rupert Bunny, which had been stolen from a house on the Mornington Peninsula in 1991, was found in a Melbourne home.

The Art Loss Register says 45 per cent of art thefts were from private premises last year, compared with 15 per cent from galleries and museums.

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