Massie and Middeljans both mention one of the most high-profile thefts of recent times, which took place in 2012. The Pretoria Art museum was fleeced of R17.5-million worth of paintings by the likes of Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, and Gerard Sekoto in an armed heist. Most of the works were later found under a bench in a Port Elizabeth cemetery after a Crime Line tip-off. “The last one, the Sekoto, I traced to the US,” Middeljans says. That particular heist was blamed on a prominent Pretoria artist (who remains mysteriously unnamed in all the reports of the crime), who allegedly commissioned the thieves to steal the works for them.
But it turns out, art crime in South Africa, has little to do with what Massie refers to as “a Dr No type character sitting there … ordering these things”. Meredith says he has heard about possible syndicates, but, despite his immersion in the market, he has heard very little that’s verifiable about organised art crime. Targeted thefts are more of a problem abroad than in South Africa.
There is anecdotal evidence that a rare Chinese artefact in a local museum was specifically targeted, and, although rumour has it a security guard was bribed with a million rand, he reported the incident and the robbery was foiled.
IGNORANCE AND LACKOF SOPHISTICATION
In South Africa, at least, the art theft racket is enabled not so much by sophistication and connoisseurship, as by ignorance and greed. Neither the thieves nor the people who are used by thieves as a laundry for fake or stolen works, seem to grasp accurately how the art world works. Massie says most often he suspects thieves “see that an artwork is worth R1-million, and they think they’ll get R1-million”, which isn’t the case.
Although everyone I spoke to while researching this article agreed with Massie’s wry description of the market as “heavily unregulated” — there’s no police department dedicated to cultural crime or heritage objects; they’ve been seconded to rhino poaching — they all noted that the art market in South Africa is so small that it is actually very difficult to launder stolen or fake works. So you end up with the slightly contradictory situation where the market is unregulated and hardly policed and the archives aren’t comprehensive, but it’s still really difficult for thieves to monetise stolen works through legitimate channels.
“You can’t buy an illegitimate picture and do anything with it,” Meredith says. “The opportunity to genuinely liquidate a major picture in this market is tiny.”
“There’s this presumption that in South Africa the art world is disjointed, but they’re not as disjointed as people think,” de Kamper says. “If somebody brings in a fake (to an auction house) within a day or two all the big auction houses know about it.”
“If (the thieves) don’t have an endgame, it’s going to be very difficult for them, because — even if (stolen artworks) pop up in the auction world four or five years later — there’s the art theft register, there’s knowledge, there’s a question about provenance,” Massie says.
THE FAKE PRELLER
In March this year, the cover work on the catalogue for the Bonhams South African Sale was an impressive-looking work by Alexis Preller, at an estimate of between £50,000 and £80,000. By chance, a friend of De Kamper’s had alerted him to a similar (or the same) piece that had gone on sale in the UK some months before.
“It sold at another auction house called Eastbourne Auctioneers in England,” recalls De Kamper. They both noticed how similar it was to a work that had been sold at local art auctioneers Aspire for more than R7-million.
De Kamper saved the picture. “And then, three or four months later, when the Bonhams catalogue comes out, (there it was) on the front cover,” he says. “I thought, is there another copy … or is it that one from Eastbourne Auctioneers?”
The “Eastbourne” work hadn’t actually been identified as a Preller. Although it was obviously a copy, and had been painted in Preller’s time, it had been signed with the initials “GR”. In the months between its sale at Eastbourne Auctioneers and Bonhams, however, the initials had been painted out, and a forgery of Preller’s signature had been added. “I sent my finding to Bonhams,” says De Kamper. It was quietly withdrawn from the sale.