Artworks underworld is thriving
The theft of five paintings worth a total of R17.5-million from the Pretoria Art Museum earlier this month has put the spotlight on the intricate art crime underworld, where art is used to extort a ransom or hidden for decades and then soldon the legitimate market.
According to Gordon Massie, managing director of art insurance firm Art Insure, the stolen art is often destroyed by thieves who fear arrest when descriptions of their loot are splashed in the media.
Stolen artworks made of recyclable materials such as bronze end up as scrap.
Massie said the theft of art had become an epidemic plaguing Europe, North America and South Africa.
Art thieves are usually commissioned by dealers and collectors but Massie said that in some cases artworks are taken "on spec" in the hope of finding a buyer later.
"An item can be stolen and change hands three times within an hour, or it can be stolen and not seen again for many decades," Massie said.
Art Insure has a register of 103 artworks stolen in the past 10 years, including Alias Steyn's portrait of Nelson Mandela. Of the 103, only 28 have been recovered.
Massie said Italy has a fine-art squad of 95 detectives and in the UK a special police division deals with art crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigations in the US has a unit dedicated to art crime.
He laments that in South Africa, the under-resourced Endangered Species Unit of the police has to deal with this problem.
Captain Charmaine Swartz, one of four detectives in the unit, leaves at the end of the month. She said: "It's quite scary that we have this magnificent cultural heritage and we are not equipped to police it properly. We need more resources, more dedicated and passionate investigators."