top of page

Crimes against art

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Their first symposium was so successful the New Zealand Art Crimes Research Trust decided to make it an annual event. Francesca Emms speaks to Penelope Jackson, one of the founding trustees, about art crime in New Zealand and why provenance matters.

Penelope Jackson keeps a running record of art crimes in New Zealand. ‘In the last few weeks we’ve seen a korowai taken from a Wellington commercial gallery and someone helped themselves to some toes at the Body Worlds Vital exhibition in Auckland,’ she says, ‘the korowai was returned by the thief. It's always nice to be able to report a happy ending.’ An art historian, and author of Art Thieves, Fakers & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story, Jackson’s interest in New Zealand art crime began in 2003 when she was researching the late New Zealand artist Edward Bullmore and found that 150 of his works were unaccounted for. ‘Many had been sold illegally or exchanged for goods and services without his estate knowing. I was a bit blown away that such things happened here and it started me on a journey of discovering a catalogue of art crimes.’

Jackson is a trustee of the New Zealand Art Crimes Research Trust. ‘Our main focus is to organize and deliver an annual symposium. However, we also assist people who have art crime problems and need advice as to how to go about getting further assistance. We strive to bring about a greater awareness of art crimes (and how to avoid them), particularly in New Zealand.’

The trust was founded in 2015 by Jackson and three others. Arthur Tompkins, a District Court Judge based in Wellington, has lectured and taught around New Zealand and abroad on various aspects of art crime. Earlier this year he published Plundering Beauty: Art Crime in War. Louisa Gommans is a commercial lawyer who has researched and written about the protection of Maori cultural heritage, repatriation of taonga and remains and the appropriate use of Maori cultural products. Her particular area of interest is provenance research, and she advises both buyers and sellers about conducting thorough due diligence. Ngarino Ellis (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou) is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and Co-ordinator of the Museums and Cultural Heritage Programme at the University of Auckland. She teaches an Art Crime paper which covers illicit antiquities, looting, theft, vandalism, forgery and art squads, both historic and contemporary, across the globe.

The theme of this year’s symposium is Provenance Matters. ‘And it does,’ says Jackson. ‘Collectors often get into difficulties because they haven’t checked the provenance of a purchase, or there is something amiss with the provenance. It’s like a secondhand car – if there’s a gap in the speedometer reading, there’s a possible issue.’ The symposium will showcase prominent cases where provenance isn’t all it seems – ‘the best forgers are also top notch at inventing provenance’ – and explain ways of making sure the provenance of a work is squeaky clean. ‘We try and deliver presentations around themes that will be of use in a practical way for attendees as well as providing case studies that are very much part of our history,’ says Jackson. In previous years the symposium has covered the Motunui Panels, and the re-use and misuse of images from museum collections; and last year Auckland conservator Camilla Baskcomb spoke about the fraudulent works she had come across in the course of her work.

Many people are surprised to discover New Zealand has such an ‘active’ art crime scene, through it’s impossible to measure as so much goes unreported. ‘It’s very frustrating,’ says Jackson, ‘if it’s not reported then they’ve got away with it and are encouraged to reoffend.’ Art crime is not reported for various reasons and Jackson says if you look at the fallout when an art crime is reported then you can understand why people don’t. ‘For instance, when the Alexander Turnbull Library announced the Lindauer portrait they acquired in 2013 wasn’t actually by Lindauer, and was therefore fraudulent, the public was angry that public funds had been spent on a work worth far less than they paid. And of course it’s a bit like a leaky house, once you report it, then the stigma is always there. If you’re a private collector who has purchased a lemon, and this gets into the media, you’ll never be able to move it on.’ There’s also a risk that media reporting can lead to copycat crimes, though the flip-side of this is that sometimes the public actually help to solve it.

Art crime refers to criminally punishable acts that involve works of art. ‘In the most general sense art crimes include theft, vandalism and fraud. This is broad, and other aspects can include wartime confiscations and the theft of artistic ideas.’ Jackson says there are no laws specific to art crime in New Zealand. ‘The word forgery is often used but you can’t be charged with forgery, it’s fraud,’ she explains. Fraud and theft fall under the Crimes Act 1961 and vandalism falls under the Summary Offences Act 1981. In an ideal world there would be a dedicated art squad within the New Zealand Police force. Jackson says we need art professionals to lead investigations which would be easier than trying to bring the police up to speed about art each and every time something goes wrong.

Colin McCahon, 'Urewera mural', 1975

Greed is often the basis for committing art crime, but money is only one aspect of it. In 1997 Tuhoe removed Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural from its home at Lake Waikaremoana, ‘to make the point that having something taken – like your land – hurts. Fortunately, it was eventually found and returned to the Urewera area.’ In unsolved cases, like the 1942 theft of Psyche from Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the motivation is unknown. ‘We can only guess at the reasons behind this theft because the work has never been found.’

When asked about the worst New Zealand art crime Jackson finds it hard to choose. ‘There’s no one crime that stands out as they’re all so individual and bad for different reasons,’ she says. She mentions the theft and butchering of James Tissot’s Still on Top (c.1873) from Auckland Art Gallery in 1998. ‘There was a public outcry that such a beautiful work was taken at gunpoint and damaged (and one of the security staff injured in the process). Fortunately, the work was restored close to its former glory. Though that took two years,’ she says.

James Tissot, 'Still on Top', circa 1873, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Viscount Leverhulme, 1921

While researching her book Jackson discovered many ‘emotional and compelling’ stories about New Zealanders having works stolen or being sold fraudulent work. ‘A lovely man from Mosgiel told me about a family Goldie portrait that was taken from their home during an open home in 2008.’ The work, which has never been found, had been given by Goldie to his wife’s parents in gratitude for a lifetime of teaching service. Then there’s Christchurch resident Elizabeth Wearn, who told Jackson about her family’s paintings stolen from her home in 1992. ‘She died last year, without ever seeing them again.’

And what about Carl Feodor Goldie? The infamous painting forger is celebrated every year at the Mangaweka Fakes & Forgeries Festival. ‘Personally, I’d rather see artists producing their own art rather than copying the work of others,’ say Jackson. ‘Plus once you have copies on the open market you potentially create problems further down the line for collectors.’

Jackson’s advice is to do your homework before purchasing. ‘People often get very passionate when they purchase art but do take stock for a moment and ask questions.’ She recommends avoiding ‘spending up large’ on art from online auction sites. ‘Find a reputable dealer and/or auction house, they’ll see you right.’

4th annual New Zealand Art Crime Symposium

City Gallery Wellington

22 September

First published ArtZone #75


bottom of page