Spike in art theft creates ugly picture

The recent theft of four works on paper by William Kentridge from the David Krut Gallery has shaken the South African art world, proving once again that the high price art attracts provides encouragement for a roguish and daring criminal element.

Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning, Taryn Hackket was going about her managerial duties at the David Krut Gallery on Jan Smuts when a curious couple entered the gallery. Also in attendance was David Krut himself, conducting business with a colleague.

With the dimensions of the rectangular gallery measuring approximately 8m x 25m, the presence of people could hardly go unnoticed. Yet with their backs turned for what Hackett describes as an instant, the couple allegedly managed to lift and conceal four small editioned works from a print cabinet near the back of the gallery.

With her suspicion aroused by the faint whisper of archival tissue paper, Hackett turned her attention back to the couple as they walked calmly to the door and watched as they casually smoked a cigarette just up the street.

In a seemingly unrelated case, four different prints, also by Kentridge and still registered in David Krut’s inventory, were discovered at a Pretoria auction house.

Acting swiftly, Captain Henry Bendemen of the Rosebank police confiscated the works and after investigation made two arrests last Friday. One of the suspects was an employee of David Krut. In court appearances, on February 14, police managed to oppose bail. On advice from their lawyers, the suspects have exercised their right to remain silent.

This kind of flagrant and daring theft is not new in South Africa.

The most notorious case in recent years was in 2006 when Brett Urbasch went to the 15th floor of the SABC building in Auckland Park and casually cut Pierneef’s mammoth Near Golden Gate, valued at about R2,5-million, out of its frame. Urbasch was convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.

Cut into four pieces, segments of the Pierneef painting were traced by Bendemen to Durban, where they were for sale. Suspicions were raised because of the awkward and uncharacteristic composition of the individual works, suggesting they were taken from a larger painting.

Urbasch, who had a history of forgery, committed suicide three months into his jail term, taking to the grave the whereabouts of the rest of the painting.

Not all such cases have such a tragic end. In November last year three paintings by Irma Stern, with an estimated value of R2,2-million, found their way out of a private collection in Hout Bay. Reported in the afternoon, the paintings were promptly recovered and returned to their owner in the early hours of the next morning.

Speaking about the rise in such high-end theft, Gordon Massie, the director of Artinsure, suggested that the increase could be attributed to the growth in value and brand of prominent artists, alive and dead.

Both Pierneef and Stern have been setting international records for South African art at auctions.

And Kentridge is perhaps the highest-selling South African artist still living today, with one of his drawings from the Ubu and the Truth Commission series fetching R2-million at Russel Kaplan Auctioneers earlier this month, ironically on the same Saturday as the David Krut theft.

High prices and the media hype surrounding them have made the art market a soft target for an unsavoury element. Massie has been insuring art for more than 20 years and said he has a panel of private investigators working with the SAPS on these and other cases.

He said that in the past three months there has been a significant spike in art theft. In January a small bronze by French sculptor Aime Jules Dalou (1838-1902) was stolen from the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Bendemen, Massie and Krut do not suggest a syndicate is involved in the current spate of thefts. But they are worried that the culprits could realise the hazards of being in possession of recognisable work and might destroy it. The risks involved in trying to sell the work on the open market are high.

With the attention he has received, Kentridge’s work has fallen victim to the curse of capitalism: as a commodity it has summoned the worst trait of human nature—greed.

Anyone with information should contact detective constable Qwanaite or Captain Bendeman at the Rosebank police on 011 778 4700.

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