Pretoria -A prominent Pretoria artist is suspected to be behind the brazen robbery in which three men made off with paintings worth R17.5 million from the Pretoria Art Museum.
The artist allegedly commissioned the men to steal the masterpieces for him, the Pretoria News has been told.
On Monday, Crime Linereceived a tip-off regarding the robbery. The head of Crime Line, Yusuf Abramjee, said the information had been passed on to police to follow up.
The Tshwane Metro Council revealed on Monday that the CCTV surveillance cameras at the museum were not working when the paintings were stolen.
Mayoral spokesman Pieter de Necker said at a media briefing in Pretoria that there was a technical problem with the CCTV cameras and they could not capture the robbery.
Three men entered the museum as regular art viewers before allegedly pulling out a weapon and taking out their shopping list to demand the masterpieces.
De Necker said the three men posed as art students and their lecturer and asked to view the specific paintings. “No one thought anything sinister about this as it happens a lot,” said De Necker.
The suspects tied up museum employee Daywood Khan before they took six paintings.
The men left one painting behind – Irma Stern’s Two Malay Musicians, said to have been the most expensive and valued at R12 million – when it could not fit into their vehicle.
The stolen paintings were: Irma Stern’s Fishing Boats (1931) valued at R9m, Gerard Sekoto’s Street Scene (R7m), Maggie Laubser’s Cat and Petunias (1936) valued at R1m, Hugo Naudé’s Hottentot Chief (R300 000) and Pierneef’s Eland and Bird (1961) valued at R45 000.
De Necker said the manner in which the men staged the robbery suggests they must have done their homework.
He refused to say if it was believed the incident was an inside job.
“At this stage we do not want to say or suspect an inside job. That is up to the police to prove. Every person is a suspect at this stage.”
De Necker said the robbery was a wake-up call for museums. This should be a sign that security should be beefed up and that anyone walking in could be a con man.
However, he was optimistic that the paintings would not be sold for public viewing at another museum as art lovers would recognise the works and report them to police.
“We are trying to get the message as far and wide as possible so that if people see the art they will report it to police,” he said.
The museum’s curator, Dirk Oegema, said the theft was a loss to the entire country, not just the city. The paintings were a national asset. Oegema said the museum would look at its security and try to find loopholes that needed to be plugged.
Annette Cradock, who was in the museum when the robbery took place, told the Pretoria News on Monday that she was with her husband viewing a photographic exhibition when she heard loud voices.
“I found it strange that people are shouting as art lovers are normally quiet. I then heard metal fall on the ground and saw people walking out with paintings. I thought maybe they are working there.”
Cradock said that as she turned, she found Khan tied with wire and they helped him. He tried to run outside to see if he could locate the men. “He came back and we tried to calm him down. He called police.
“It was a bit hair-raising because had we started at the photographic exhibitions, we would have been in the hall when the robbery took place.”