According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of hindsight is as follows:
understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed: with hindsight, I should never have gone
In hindsight, when looking back at the theft of A Cavalier, perhaps the example used in the above definition could instead read as, “with hindsight, A Cavalier should never have gone.” Why suggest this? Well, in the lead up to the theft, two credible red flags presented themselves which could have (should have?) merited a security upgrade before the painting was taken, instead of the upgrade taking place after its theft.
Before elaborating further on the nature of these two red flags, it is only fair to acknowledge from the outset that with (you got it) hindsight, missed opportunities are much easier to identify. So, back to the case of the 2007 theft of A Cavalier from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Certainly, there is no way of knowing if the theft could have been prevented, especially if the crime was an ‘inside job’ but, as with most events, there are lessons to be learned, issues to be explored and red flags to be raised.
Red Flag #1
In 2003, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) released a report detailing their investigation into the theft of specimens from the Australian Museum, which is located in the same precinct as the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This report stated, amongst other findings, that:
the thefts have highlighted the need for the Australian Museum to maintain adequate systems to prevent such losses in the future. This is possibly a process that many other museums both in Australia and overseas need to put in place, as museum theft is not a rare or unusual occurrence around the world. According to Interpol, in 1998, the annual international dollar value of art and cultural property theft was exceeded only by trafficking in illegal narcotics, money launderingand illegal arms trafficking
(‘Chapter 4 – Preventing corruption: an examination of management deficiencies at the Australian Museum- 4:22 Conclusion’, Report on investigation into the theft of zoological specimens, p. 33).
The question needs to be asked if the findings of this ICAC report were taken on board by cultural institutions other than the Australian Museum? The release of the report could have served as an opportunity to review the security and systems in all major cultural institutions. Obviously the Australian Museum, being directly involved, was obligated to consider the recommendations made by the ICAC report and provide evidence of implementing those recommendations. Yet, the ICAC report made the point that their findings did relate to other museums and the Art Gallery of New South Wales would have been included in this.
Red Flag #2
In 2004, a small wooden carving went missing from the Art Gallery of New South Wales:
A freedom of information request has revealed the brazen theft of a $1.4 million Dutch masterpiece from the Art Gallery of NSW in June was not its first heist. Thieves unscrewed A Cavalier, a $1.4 million self-portrait of 17th Century Dutch master Frans van Mieris from the gallery’s wall and simply walked out the door during the June theft. But News Limited reports a freedom of information request has uncovered an embarrassing second robbery in 2004. The gallery confirmed a wood carving of a pink magnolia by Tokyo-based artist Yoshihiro Suda had also been stolen. Gallery staff noticed the work, worth $35,000, missing and reported it lost. “It is still missing, it has never been found,” a gallery spokeswoman told the paper
(‘Thieves targeted NSW art gallery before’. In The Sydney Morning Herald, August 6, 2007).
As far as it is known, the theft of this carving was never reported to the police. It is also not known if the robbery resulted in a security upgrade at the Gallery, although it should be noted that the replacement carving was subsequently displayed in a glass cabinet, rather than being suspended from a door-way, as the missing piece had originally been. The theft of both the carving and A Cavalier, however, does raise the issue of whether some objects of art are more at risk of being stolen than others due to how and where they are displayed. For example, exhibiting Yoshihiro Suda’s carvings are as much about the concept behind their display as they are about the actual pieces he has created, as the following excerpt explains:
Usually placed in large empty spaces, these delicate, diminutive objects have an astonishingly powerful presence that dominates their surroundings. The void around the object is an important element of Suda’s work, and by placing his sculptures into curious nooks and crannies that are easily overlooked, he sets up surprising encounters that heighten awareness of the space and encourage the viewer to look more closely at things that they might not normally notice. By evoking organic life where we least expect it, Suda brings the emptiness of space alive.
(Sculpture details prepared by the Asian Department, AGNSW, 2006, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/287.2006.a-b/).
Such ‘curious nooks and crannies that are easily overlooked’ seem an ideal environment for any would-be-thief to steal an object, unless there is a strong presence of security guards and security cameras. The James Fairfax Gallery, where A Cavalier was displayed, could be classified as a ‘nook’, well away from the main traffic thoroughfare of gallery visitors. That location, combined with the small, portable size of the painting and the lack of security guards and CCTV in that section at the time of the theft could, (here comes that word again) in hindsight, be considered a significant contributing risk factor.
With red flags about security being raised in the 3 to 4 years before A Cavalier’s theft, it is somewhat ironic that the robbery occurred less than two weeks out from the start of a major exhibition of Islamic Art – The Arts of Islam: Treasures from the Nasser D Khalili Collection, 22 June – 23 September 2007 – which, according to media reports, had precipitated the Gallery’s “biggest security operation in its history.” (See Jinman R, and C, Morgan, “Dutch master stolen,” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 14, 2007 and Box, D and M, Westwood, “For a cavalier, he went quietly,” The Australian, June 15, 2007).
Some nooks and crannies were obviously overlooked in that security operation and so A Cavalier met the same fate as a woman dozing – Study of a Woman Dozing, to be more precise. This painting, by Australian artist William Dobell, was removed from its frame and taken from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1942. It was believed at the time to be “the first theft of a picture from a national gallery in Australia” (“Art Gallery Theft: Painting Taken from Frame,” The West Australian, June 10, 1942). Sadly, as far as art crime is concerned, history repeats itself far too often, even with a bit of hindsight thrown in. — V.O.