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R1.5m reward for missing snuff boxes

Published Aug 12, 2013


Johannesburg - Have you spotted some pretty little gold boxes encrusted with diamonds?

If you have discovered them, you could become a millionaire.

A R1.5 million reward is up for grabs for the return of prized snuff boxes, worth more than R15m, that were stolen in Joburg.

The theft of the gold and diamond-encrusted boxes is the latest in what appears to be a spate of art theft in the country.

An art insurance expert says that art theft is on the rise in South Africa with thieves often stumbling across multimillion-rand collections, stealing the items and not always realising their massive worth.

The valuable snuff box collection was stolen from a family in Joburg, who have asked not to be named or their suburb identified, says John Pearson, the managing director of John Pearson & Associates, the loss adjusters who are investigating the theft on instruction from Lloyd’s Underwriters in London.

The total of 20 boxes, which were originally used to store scented powdered tobacco known as snuff, were worth “in excess of R15 million”, according to Pearson.

“They were stolen from a very wealthy family who have collected the boxes over many, many years,” Pearson said, saying only they lived in an affluent Joburg suburb.

Pearson declined to give specific details as he said he did not want to jeopardise their investigation.

“There’s an investigation under way and we’re running on a couple of suspects,” he said.

Pearson said most of the snuff boxes were gold, with just one being made of silver, and that they were also mostly encrusted with diamonds and opals.

One of the boxes is believed to have been created in 1777 by French artist Jean Baptiste Marie.

Another of Marie’s snuff boxes was sold at an auction by UK auctioneers Christie’s for R192 000 in 2008.

“I don’t think this is a situation where international criminals are involved; I think someone has just seen an opportunity,” Pearson said.

The boxes have been registered on the international art theft register and have been published on a local art insurance company’s website.

The managing director of Artinsure, Gordon Massie, emphasised that although his company had not insured the snuff boxes, this form of crime was on the rise.

“The frequency of art theft in the last financial year was up by 43 percent,” Massie said, adding that this included private, corporate and gallery collections.

“It’s a pandemic worldwide and it’s hitting us here too.”

Massie said there were generally three types of art theft: where thieves steal items for their recyclable value, where the thieves have stumbled across the valuable items and where specific collections have been targeted.

In 2005, thieves stole a two-ton bronze statue from the grounds of the Henry Moore Foundation in London worth an estimated £500 000 and tried to sell it for scrap.

The thieves reportedly sold it for £46 (R700), which Massie said indicates “the ludicrousness” of this type of theft.

In the other two types of art theft, the thieves either target a collection or just steal it because they are taking a gamble.

“There is a growing number of opportunistic thefts during a burglary,” Massie said.

This was because thieves were becoming more aware of the value of art, especially locally produced works, and they would take a gamble on stealing the pieces.

In another local incident of what Massie suspects was targeted art theft, a collection of coins and medals was stolen in Parkview in February.

Massie said he believed the thieves knew what to look for because 37 gold, silver and copper coins, two military medals, and four commemorative coins and medals were stolen out of a larger collection of coins and medals.

He said this indicated the thieves most likely had an “end-game” where they knew they had a market and a buyer for the pieces.

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The Star

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