Zimbabwe – How stolen antiques were recovered with the help of Ton Cremers (Museum Security Network), and Bob Wittman (FBI)

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How stolen antiques were recovered

Sunday, 20 October 2013 00:00

Leisure Reporter
When a smartly dressed Polish gentleman stole six antiques from the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ) in June 2006, the whole occurrence seemed like a Hollywood movie, hitting a dramatic climax when the artefacts were discovered six months later in Europe.The antiques comprised of four original traditional Zimbabwean head-rests, commonly known as “mutsago” and two Makonde masks from Tanzania.

The Makonde masks were acquired by the gallery in 1964 while mitsago were acquired between the period 1962 and 1970. During that time, these artefacts were priceless as they were part of a permanent collection that was kept in the northern section of the gallery.

Seven years down the line what still puzzles the minds of many is how it all happened, how the security was breached and, most importantly, how the antiques were recovered.

In a bid to unveil the whole mysterious story, The Sunday Mail Leisure last week visited the NGZ to gather more information on the treasured African ethnographic objects.

Conservation and collection manager of the gallery Lillian Chaonwa said the objects were stolen dramatically by a Polish man.

“The story surrounding these returned objects started in 2006 when we had a daylight robbery from a man who had come requesting to see our old artefacts,” said Chaonwa.

“We are not sure if this man was visiting for the first time or after a few visits, but, when he arrived he was directed to his destination by the receptionist who was on duty that day.”

She said the man had a small bag which he refused to leave at the reception insisting that it carried his important particulars, including money.

Dressed in casual, the man was a Caucasian with a bold head and when he entered the gallery he took less than 10 minutes inside before he got out acting as if he had been called for an emergency somewhere.

“When the culprit entered the gallery, his bag seemed to be small but, it was one of those bags that can be opened to any size,” explained the conservations and collection manager.

“Normally visitors to see a specific person from the gallery should sign in their details at the reception while those who intend to have a tour are given tickets, but there were no details of this man.

“What triggered our security is the way that this Caucasian left the gallery, he was in an overstated rush carrying a bag which was bigger than the one he had got in with.”

She said some of the objects were cut down from the display with a very sharp object which showed how organised the crime was.

Soon after passing the gallery’s exit door, the bold man started running like a crazy man. Following him was the gallery’s security man who had seen all the suspicious moves.

Chaonwa added: “It is unfortunate that in our society people have a perception that only black people steal from white people, so when our security man was almost getting hold of the thief, he tried to grab the bag but fell on the ground.

“People around him didn’t even bother helping him out as they thought he was the one trying to steal from the white man.”

By the time this old man got back on his feet to try and catch up with the Caucasian man, it was already too late as the culprit was already in a taxi.

Without losing hope the security man from the gallery also got into another taxi to chase after the foreigner. Unfortunately he failed to keep up because the taxi he was using to follow the culprit ran out of fuel.

On the same day, NGZ made a police report and alerted all immigration ports to assist in recovering the stolen objects.

Chaonwa said nothing was tracked on the day until six months down the line when the gallery approached the Netherlands Museum security consultant, Ton Cremers, in mid-September.

“The deputy executive director of the national museum and monuments during that time was Traude Rodges and she referred us to Ton,” narrated Chaonwa.

She said the investigations were collaborations of forces at international level.“Ton has an organisation called the Museum Security Network and he was so connected with a lot of people including the FBI and CIA who assisted in the investigations,” said Chaonwa“We sent him the few pictures of the stolen objects, as well as the description and every necessary detail for the primary investigations.”

A few weeks after the gallery approached Ton, it was established that the Polish criminal was actually selling the most valued African artefacts on the Internet.

The revelations came after a faithful American artefact collector who intended to buy these objects genuinely became suspicious.

On the market, the objects were being sold for an average of US$15 000 each.The American man realised that the description of the crafts he intended to buy were similar to those that were stolen from Zimbabwe after consulting his agents before purchasing.

“Ton linked up with the American collector who also participated in the investigations as he kept on asking for pictures from the Polish to use as evidence,” Chaonwa said.

“The conversations were shown to the FBI and Robert Wittman was handling the case from FBI.“Each time we needed updating, we would communicate with Robert and Ton through teleconference and the use of such advanced technology made it easier for us to constantly communicate.”

She said the gallery was informed that the Polish criminal was sentenced in his country soon after he was exposed.

However, the name of the criminal and the American buyer were made a secret as they were never mentioned in the investigations or emails to the gallery from Ton.

The artefacts were taken to the Embassy of Zimbabwe in Germany because in Poland there is no diplomatic presence.

In Germany, the antiques were kept safe for some years before a representative from the gallery went to collect the valued objects.

Silas Matope had gone to Germany for an internship programme and he went to collect the objects from the embassy this year and returned on October 3.

The director of the Culture Fund, Farai Mufunya, has urged all museums, galleries and other places that keep traditional and cultural valued artefacts to tighten their security.

“Our traditional artefacts, music and dances define who we are, where we came from and represent our unique heritage that tells a story on our civilisation,” said Mufunya.

“If we lose such objects, we have lost our unique identity as well and our identity plays a major role in the world’s history.

“Our heritage should be passed on to future generations to help them understand where we came from; therefore they should be kept in safe places where there is tight security.”


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