June 10, 2013 marks six years since the 17th century Dutch painting A Cavalier (self portrait) by Frans van Mieris was stolen from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It has still not been recovered. It will be curious to see if there’ll be any mention of this unhappy anniversary in the media. Last year’s reporting efforts, it has to be said, did nothing to instil any confidence or hope that the painting would be found – especially when the one newspaper article that did mention the theft had this for a headline:
Search for stolen masterpiece ends
(Taylor, A, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 2012)
The case does remain technically open but the investigation was suspended due to a lack of information or leads, hence the unfortunate headline. The authorities, the NSW Police Force, had come to the end of the line. They had nothing more to go on. The case was at a complete standstill. Enter Anthony Amore – Chief Investigator and Director of Security at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum and dedicated art crime sleuth. It was in fact his reading of this very article which precipitated his establishment of this website dedicated to recovering the “Stolen Cavalier.” The local authorities may have given up but Amore knows from experience that the only time you should give up the search is when the missing artworks have been found.
As optimistic as one tries to be, the reality is that stolen art has a low recovery rate. But when one considers how artworks act as markers of history, markers of time, each piece that goes missing leaves an irreplaceable gap in history. This is reason enough to not give up the search – we want that history back! But there is also another statistic about stolen art which compels us to not give up the search for masterpieces like A Cavalier: such works are either recovered relatively recently after their theft or a generation later. As those of you familiar with this site already know, the latter was the case with another Frans van Mieris painting, Man at a Window Smoking a Pipe (1658). This piece was one of four paintings recovered in 1998, thirty years after being stolen from Romania’s Brukenthal National Museum back in 1968. And given that statistics also show there is a higher recovery rate for stolen masterpieces it is, arguably, never too late to mount a public awareness campaign to find them – which is what this website is about – raising the profile of the painting and the theft with the aim of crowd sourcing information.
In reviewing what is known about the case and the investigation, the one lead which sounded promising came from a source in the UK. Well known art crime blogger, Paul ‘Turbo’ Hendry, contacted Michael Maher here in Sydney. Maher had been appointed by the New South Wales (NSW) Treasury Managed Fund, an entity of the NSW state government, to mount an independent investigation into the theft as the painting is a state government asset. Hendry acted as an intermediary for persons in Europe whom he claimed had possession of the stolen artwork. Emails were exchanged but when Maher analysed the timeframe of these messages it placed these persons on the east coast of Australia, not Europe. Did this mean the painting was still in Australia? Unfortunately the thorny issue of reward money curtailed Maher’s contact with Hendry and the answer to that question – further information would only be divulged with the payment of money but there was no reward on offer.
Shortly after the theft criticismhad been levelled at the Gallery when it announced that as a result of “consultations with other organisations” they had decided to not offer a reward (Jones, G, “Art gallery refuses to offer reward for stolen painting,” The Daily Telegraph, August 21, 2007). Being a public institution, the Gallery’s decision was not theirs alone to make. As Maher explained, the Gallery was required to adhere to state government policy and the state government does not make deals in regards to ransoms or rewards. Still, in the six years since the painting disappeared this has been, to my knowledge, the only time someone has claimed to know the whereabouts of A Cavalier. Should the NSW Police Force revisit this line of investigation? Perhaps some new lead might turn up which may have been missed before. There are those who are trying their best to encourage the Police to do just this. Undoubtedly what is needed is new information. So, on this sixth anniversary, we remember A Cavalier (self portrait), we lament its loss and we appeal for your help to spread the message of this “Stolen Cavalier” in the hope of discovering any information on its whereabouts. The best anniversary gift would be one where there were no more anniversaries marking the date of its theft, only anniversaries celebrating the date of its recovery. —V.O.