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Pretoria - Four of the five paintings stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum at the weekend were recovered on Tuesday by Port Elizabeth police undamaged.
The four paintings - Maggie Laubser’s Cat and Petunias (1936), Hugo Naude’s Hottentot Chief, JH Pierneef’s Eland and Bird (1961) and Irma Stern’s Fishing Boats (1931) - were found underneath a bench at the Ned Geref Kerk in Sundridge Park.
Gerard Sekoto’s Street Scene (1939) valued at R7 million wasn’t among the paintings recovered.
The paintings were stolen by three men who pretended to be academics - an art lecturer and two students.
They paid R10 entrance fee to the museum and, while inside, they are said to have tied up an employee.
They then produced a “shopping list” of the artworks they wanted while allegedly holding the employee at gunpoint.
The robbers left one painting by Irma Stern behind as it was too big to fit into their getaway car. The painting, Two Malay Musicians, is valued at about R12m.
Police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said on Tuesday the paintings were discovered by a member of the K9 Unit who had received a tip-off from one of his contacts.
“The officer was contacted by an informer in the morning. The member went to the cemetery and found the paintings in a small private cemetery in Sundridge Park, behind the Dutch Reformed Church.
“Verification of the art must still be done, but from a layman’s view they appear to be the same pieces that were taken in Pretoria,” said Mills.
She praised the manner in which the community had worked with police.
“The importance of police members sustaining good relations with the members of the public has once again proved how valuable this can be in the fight against crime,” said Mills.
She said the Eastern Cape SAPS would be in contact with Gauteng police to assist with the investigation.
No arrests have been made and Mills said they were not sure who had left the artwork there.
Tshwane mayoral spokesman Pieter de Necker on Tuesday held a press briefing at the museum where he confirmed the recovered paintings were those that had been taken on Sunday.
He praised police on the swift recovery of the masterpieces but appealed to the informer to assist in the recovery of the fifth painting.
“We are delighted with the work police did but it is unfortunate that Gerard Sekoto’s painting is still missing. We trust the person who informed the police will come forward on the whereabouts of that painting,” said De Necker.
He said they found it odd as to why Sekoto’s painting was still missing.
The answer however could be because he had been honoured as a Master painter.
The deputy director of Heritage Management, Ishmael Mbhokoto, said: “The fact that Sekoto’s work is so highly sought after could be the reason why they still have it.
“He was recently honoured as a Master artist and this pushed up the price of his work.”
Asked about reports that a city artist may have been the mastermind behind the robbery, De Necker said nothing had been said about that. We don’t have much information regarding the police investigations but there are a lot of speculations,” he said.
De Necker said the robbery had had a chain reaction worldwide as many museums had called them to find out what had happened and to check on the security measures they had in place.
“We are looking at improving security at the museum during trading hours,” he said.
De Necker added that the warnings they had received from the DA about security at the museum had not fallen on deaf ears, and it was just unfortunate that the theft happened while they were in the process of implementing the decisions that were made following the complaints.
Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile condemned the theft of the artworks.
Mashatile said that the theft of works by some of South Africa's leading icons, like Stern and Sekoto, was a setback for the nation and for the visual arts.
“Artwork in our museums and galleries are not just beautiful images to look at, these creative expressions reflect our rich history and culture,” he said.
The department said it already had measures in place to help prevent the stolen pieces from being sold on the art market, either locally or abroad. “I appeal to the public to work with the police to help track down those responsible for the theft,” urged Mashatile.