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South Africa’s Biggest Art Heist Spurred by Soaring Values

South Africa’s Biggest Art Heist Spurred by Soaring Values
South African artist Irma Stern's 1931 "Fishing Boats" was among the five paintings stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum Sunday morning. Source: The City of Tshwane via AP Photo

A 10-fold increase in the value of South Africa’s best-known art spurred the biggest heist in the country’s history when thieves stole five paintings worth a combined 17.5 million rand ($2 million).

A man posing as an art teacher along with two people he said were students held a security guard at gunpoint and forced him to help locate and steal the paintings at the Pretoria Art Museum yesterday morning, Pieter de Necker, a spokesman for the local mayor, said by phone today. The heist included works by South African artists Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, J.H. Pierneef, Maggie Laubser and Hugo Naude, he said.

“The value of the artworks influences criminal minds and we’ve seen exponential increases in values over the last five to 10 years,” Stefan Hundt, art adviser at Sanlam Private Investments, said in a telephone interview from Cape Town. “Most institutions have probably been lulled into a false sense of security, but this is a new turn in events. It could be the biggest art heist in South African history.”

Images of the criminals’ faces weren’t recorded because the gallery’s closed-circuit television system broke down on Nov. 8. De Necker said.

“We have informed Interpol,” he said. “It’s a definite call to not just our own museum but various art galleries to increase security.”

‘Incompetent Lot’

The thieves sound like “an incompetent lot,” Hundt said, after it was reported that they left Irma Stern’s “Two Malay Musicians,” a painting valued at 12 million rand, on the sidewalk due to lack of space in the getaway car. While Stern’s work was the most valuable piece in the museum, other works by some of South Africa’s best-known artists, including those by William Kentridge, Walter Battiss and Robert Hodgins, were left untouched.

In 1997, an Irma Stern would sell for about 200,000 rand, Hundt said. “Now people are prepared to pay up to 20 million rand,” he said. “There has been a 10-fold increase in the value of some works lately -- all the big names have seen incredible price hikes.”

The stolen artworks are probably still in South Africa, according to both De Necker and Hundt. “It’s usually South Africans or expat South Africans who buy these artists,” Hundt said.

The paintings were all owned by the municipality, the City of Tshwane, and were insured, De Necker said. He said he had yet to hear of any progress from the police.

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