On the eve of one of the great fixtures in the Australian sporting calendar, the Grand Final of the National Rugby League (NRL), I got to thinking: What would happen if someone stole the trophy? Would the police and the NRL give up the search after a year? Or would they keep looking for it until it was recovered? I have often thought that it would take the theft of some sporting cultural icon to be stolen – like the NRL trophy or the Melbourne Cup trophy from the famous annual horse race that “stops a nation” – before most pundits would sit up and take notice of the chasms in history caused by the theft of cultural heritage items. Herein, however, lies the sting in this analogy: the pundits would sit up and take notice because they would have some measure of attachment (affection, even) towards the trophy, for the trophy has become embedded in their own personal history as well as in the nation’s history. Some critics argue that this was not the case with Frans van Mieris’s painting, A Cavalier (self portrait), missing since June 2007, and the investigation stalling a year later. Indeed, some would say that the sentiment towards the painting was the complete opposite. People were indifferent and ignorant of its existence, so much so that when it was stolen there was no public outpouring of sorrow or shock at the loss of this Dutch masterpiece. In fact it only generated a handful of reports and articles and has barely appeared in the media since that initial reporting period where, for a brief moment, an art crime in Australia made international headlines.
Could it really be that the less popular a cultural item is, the less motivated authorities are to recover it? Is A Cavalier’s lack of popularity a reflection on the quality of the painting? Of course the answer should be no for the first question and a resounding no for the second. Yet, all remains quiet on the investigation front, as far as A Cavalier (self portrait) goes…and I wonder if that would still be the case if Frans van Mieris was as popular now as he was in his heyday.
A Cavalier is already the Stolen Cavalier. Let’s ensure that it does not also become the Forgotten Cavalier. —V.O.