Pretoria artwork experts fear that the thieves who made off with valuable paintings from the Pretoria Art Museum will destroy them as they are unlikely to be able to sell them.
Artwork expert and managing director at Strauss and Co Fine Art Auctioneers, Stephan Welz, and Michael Bernardi, an artwork expert from Bernardi Auctioneers, said they feared the thieves would destroy the paintings.
“I have this horrible feeling that they’re never going to sell these paintings and [will] eventually resort to destroying them,” said Welz.
He said the theft of Pierneef’s Eland and Bird, showed the thieves were not as sophisticated as thought. It was also possible that they had stolen the wrong paintings. “The puzzling part in all this is the theft of the Pierneef. Several other paintings in the gallery are worth 10 times more than that painting.
“I suspect that the thieves’ list only had the names [of the artists] on it and not the painting’s names.”
Welz said criminals had become aware of the value of paintings. But he did not believe the theft was executed by someone within the industry as “they knew such artworks were hard to sell”.
Bernardi said the fact that one of the paintings had been dumped because it did not fit in the getaway car suggested the thieves were not professionals. “There’s no way they will get away with this. My only thought, and I doubt it will work, is that they will hold the insurance company for ransom,” he said.
Bernardi said the thieves were misled into believing it was easy money to steal artwork and make a quick fortune. But all the paintings were well known and no art lover would even think of buying a stolen painting – especially popular and well-known ones.
“The art community in South Africa is small. The sad possibility is that the paintings may go underground, disappear or may be destroyed. And if there is no painting, the thieves can’t be charged as there will be no evidence,” he said.
Bernardi said it was sad that a “rare” painting such as the Street Scene by Gerard Sekoto, which depicted the township of Eastwood Park, could be lost forever.
“It’s possible that the artwork could be locked in a room, but the problem is you can’t display it to anyone as people will know it’s stolen,” Bernardi said.
On security at the museum, Bernardi said the council should beef up its security but acknowledged that museums were given a small budget by the municipality.
He also suggested that paintings on display be protected with glass as was the case in most overseas museums, where security was more stringent.
Department of Arts and Culture spokeswoman Lisa Combrinck said the department was part of the National Forum for the Law Enforcement of Heritage – a platform for heritage and law enforcement officials to discuss crimes and identify measures to fight against heritage thefts.
“The theft of the paintings will therefore be on the agenda of the forum to monitor the situation with the police. Interpol will also be informed to ensure the paintings may be traced in case they leave the country.”