The Frans van Mieris painting, A Cavalier (self portrait), had been on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1993 – three and a half centuries and 16663.7 kilometres from its birthplace in The Netherlands. Fourteen years later, in 2007, the unthinkable happened: it was stolen – spirited away to some netherworld, where it still remains.
Next time you pass a newsstand and spy the row of glossy magazines, spare a thought for this stolen Cavalier, which is similar in size to those publications. Undoubtedly what made the thief’s job (and exit from the gallery) a lot easier was the fact that the painting was so small. Its size was perfect for being concealed on their person, in a bag, or under a jacket/coat draped over their arm. This is one case where size did indeed matter. Frans van Mieris could not have known that his predilection for creating small paintings, which made them portable for his legitimate customers (this portability of artworks being a hallmark of the Dutch art market at the time), would also serve non-paying illegitimate customers only too well.
With its unsolved status depriving us of the benefit of being able to question the thief/thieves, any discussion about the motivations for stealing A Cavalier is speculative in nature. The painting’s small dimensions, however, has led some to believe that its theft was a crime of opportunity – that someone saw their chance and (literally) took it. There is one flaw in this theory. The painting was held in place by four specialised screws. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not in the habit of carrying a flathead or Phillips head screwdriver around in my handbag, let alone a specialised one, which is what these fastenings would have required. According to an investigator who worked the case, the perpetrator would have needed prior knowledge of how the painting was fastened in order to determine how to best remove it.
Putting the screws aside (which is what the thief did!), if anything in this case could be considered opportunistic it would be A Cavalier’s location at the time of the theft. It was displayed in The James Fairfax Gallery, which is located within the Old Courts section of the Art Gallery. The room which housed the painting could be classified as a ‘nook’, a quiet spot well away from the main traffic thoroughfare of gallery visitors. That location and, at the time, the lack of security guards and CCTV cameras in that section, made it an ideal environment for a would-be-thief to go about their criminal business, undetected. Yet even so, without the right tools, as alluded to earlier, the painting would not have been so easily removed from the wall. Sadly, for lovers of great art, the thief did have the right tools and the space from where A Cavalier gazed outwards conspired in its unlawful removal. –Vicki Oliveri