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Art, theft and everyday life

On a certain Monday in August in the year 1911, Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian working in France and afflicted by the misguided belief that his actions were those of patriotism, snuck out of the closet in which he had hidden overnight within the walls of the Louvre Museum. He had only one thing on his mind, and that was Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa which he quickly placed beneath his coat before proceeding to walk out of the museum with unimaginable ease.

Two years later, realising that patriotism does not offer as good a life as the prospect of cashing in on the most popular painting of all time, one imagines, Perugia decided to find himself a buyer, and soon found himself under arrest. His sentence was 12 months.

The theft of artworks goes a little further back than 1911 but the curious case of Vincenzo Perugia, the patriotic, stands out for obvious reasons. I remembered this hilarious tale, which I first encountered some years back while reading through Edward Dolnick’s Stealing the Scream, when news broke of the robbery at Pretoria Museum on the morning of Sunday November 11. According to Dolnick, “a museum of stolen masterpieces would rival any of the world’s great treasure houses of art” and I am inclined to agree.

I have found some the responses to it a little hysterical, especially those of the insurance companies. I am sure it is helpful to scare other institutions about the potential for theft and robbery but claiming that a “European-style modus operandi” is on the rise in South Africa is stretching things a bit. I am willing to bet my freshly minted Mandela notes, that we are more likely to see a rise of inexplicable department of arts and culture tenders and expenditure than we are of art museum heists. If I am wrong then I will gladly concede  it.

One thing that can be said about art heists is that they always read like a thriller for the most part, with elements of hilarious tragicomedy. The robbers of Pretoria Art Museum, after dumping the most valuable piece in their loot of six, abandoned four of the remaining five works in a cemetery in Port Elizabeth. It hasn’t even been two full days. One can only imagine the private scenes of our strategically challenged robbers, and I am certain that their versions of events will be even more interesting should they suffer the misfortune of getting caught.

Perhaps a consolation of sorts for our fastidious thieves is that it turns out that the heist is the most expensive in South African history. The total value of the works is about R18-million, but even this is meagre compared to some of the more famous heists internationally.  Stéphane Breitwieser, a French waiter who was arrested in 2003, stole around R12.3-billion worth of paintings and other valuable objects. Unlike the patriotic Perugia above, his capture generated far more excitement. His loving mother, realising his imminent capture, did what any (deranged) mother would do: she sliced the paintings into tiny little pieces which she then proceeded to throw into the trash and the nearest canal. Now that is an expensive loss.

But while we may have been respectively outraged or saddened by the circumstances surrounding Pretoria Art Museum’s heist and the resultant comedy of errors, we should bear in mind that there are many more South Africans out there to whom such news meant and means nothing. That’s the reality of living in a country such as ours, and the world, really – only a minority can afford the privilege of outrage and entertainment.  The rest can only deal with the issues that are more immediate to their lives, finding a way to get on and get by.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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