Zimbabwe: How Stolen Artefacts Were Found
On Tuesday June 6 2006 the National Gallery of Zimbabwe was hard hit when a thieving visitor of the Gallery made away with four Zimbabwean headrests/mutsago and two Makonde masks/ helmets.
According to one sales assistant at the Gallery Shop, on this day, a man came into the shop at around 10am asking to see antiques on sale. After the man had toured the shop, he asked to see genuine objects and was advised to buy an entrance ticket for access into the gallery.
He declined to leave his small satchel at the attendance desk were bags are placed, insisting that his valuables including money could not be left in public storage. He went up to the North Gallery which used to house traditional artefacts back then. When there was no attendant in sight, the gentleman realised an opportunity to shop around the displays, untie the four headrests that were fastened to the wall, removed two masks that were on display stands and packed the six objects into his bag.
After a short while, the sales attendant noticed the visitor walking briskly down the ramp from upstairs and was suspicious. The gallery had just received an alert form the local Museum of Human Sciences and had just held a brief talk on the matter.
The thief increased his speed as he passed the attendants’ desk on his way out and immediately the attendants were alerted to look into the exhibition hall to check. They found that some of the displays had been tampered with and also found vacant display plinths.
The chase was on. One of the senior security guards, an elderly man, Mr Mavhunga (who is now late), continued the search and at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Leopold Takawira Street about half a kilometre from the gallery, he spotted the thief. He proceeded to ask for assistance to apprehend the thief from the public but the guard was, however, stopped and beaten by bystanders who suspected he intended to rob the man, while the thief took to his heels to get a taxi.
The security officer took another taxi to continue the chase but unfortunately the vehicle ran out of fuel. The security officer then reported the matter to the police. In the meantime at the Gallery, the staff had called the police and an additional police report was filed by Mr Mavhunga.
The Directive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Mrs Doreen Sibanda, then got in contact with the National Museums and Monuments in Harare knowing fully well that they had experienced thefts of artefacts. She was then advised by then NMMZ Deputy Director, Traude Rodgers, to get in contact with Mr Ton Cremes, who is a well known art security consultant and who is the founder of the Museum Security Network. Mr Cremers immediately requested images of the stolen items to put up on his website.
After five months Mrs Sibanda received a call from Mr Cremers indicating that the items had been located on sale on the internet by a seller in Poland and that several agencies, including the FBI in the United States of America, were organising themselves to be able to trap the seller.
Most likely the thief left the African continent via South Africa and from Poland he offered the objects to an American collector
It is believed that at the beginning of November, an American collector of African antiquities contacted the Museums security network because someone had offered him objects that looked very similar to those published on their website. The collector,, Mr Rand, was advised by Mr Cremers to get in touch with his local police. Mr Cremers alarmed Robert Wittman (FBI in those days) in the USA.
It appeared that the stolen Zimbabwean objects were offered by a resident of Poland. According to this man, the objects originally belonged to his father who worked in Zimbabwe while it was still Rhodesia.
A sting operation led by Mr Wittman to recover the stolen objects was scheduled to take place in Poland in order to corner the thief. The agencies involved – FBI, CIA and the Polish police – performed a great job and managed not only to recover the stolen artifacts, but also arrested the person who offered these objects for sale. It turned out that this person himself had committed the theft in Harare.
In November 2007 the National Gallery of Zimbabwe was informed by the Ministry of Justice in Poland that the Public Prosecutor’s Office had concluded its preparatory proceedings and had submitted the indictment against Polish national Marian Przepiorski to the Regional Court in Warsaw, second Criminal Unit. He was subsequently tried and is currently serving a jail sentence for the offence.
The artefacts were released into the custody of the Zimbabwean Embassy in Germany. The National Gallery is extremely grateful for their readiness to keep and secure the works. The artefacts were then handed over to our Operations Manager Mr Silas Matope, who brought them back on October 3 after serving a professional internship in Germany.
Many thanks to Mrs Lilian Chaonwa who is the Collection and Conservation at the institution for taking the photographs that were used by MSN plus as evidence during the trial against Marian. It should be noted that during the period, in which the artefacts were collected, the National Gallery had not started on the image documentation process and she had only taken the images as group collection of the display.
Another key player in the recovery of the stolen artefacts is Robert King “Bob” Wittman, who is a highly decorated Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent. As a result of his specialised training in art, antiques, jewellery and gem identification, Wittman served as the FBI’s top investigator and co-ordinator in cases involving art theft and art fraud.
Wittman has recovered more than US$300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of numerous individuals. Although he is now no longer with the FBI, he continues to use his expertise as an art security consultant for the private sector.
The Museum Security Network made the recovering of the stolen artefacts a reality for the National Gallery of Zimbabwe at a time when some would have believed it was impossible.
Since 1996, the Netherlands-based Museum Security Network has disseminated news and information related to issues of cultural property loss and recovery. Since its founding the Museum Security Network has collected and disseminated over 45,000 reports about incidents with cultural property. The founder of the Museum Security Network, Ton Cremers, is recipient of the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection Robert Burke Award.
In September 2006, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe engaged with a Museum Security Consultant from Netherlands and this was sponsored by the Netherlands Embassy in Zimbabwe. The main Workshop was held in Harare followed by regional ones for both institution’s regional Galleries and Museums.
It was during these workshops that several recommendations were made including that only displaying the artifacts when there are secure display cases.
Since this period, the National Gallery has since improved its security and has erected CCTV camera within its buildings.
A lesson learnt in this whole encounter is always to report cases of art theft to local police and come out publicly to alert and get assistance from professionals in the field. Police in foreign countries will never act if a theft has not been filled in the country of origin. The Zimbabwean-American-Netherlands-Polish network really worked. A success like this is only too rare.