A Visual Footnote to the 1972 Worcester Art Museum Heist
Travis Simpkins is a dedicated lover of art. He protects it at the Worcester Art Museum. He creates it in the form of an amazing portfolio of sketches ranging from portraiture to interpretations of important art objects. And he preserves it via a weekly mailing of then-and-now photos of the WAM that accumulated quite a following and garnered him a great deal of publicity.
Now Travis joins me and Vicki Oliveri at Stolen Cavalier, contributing writings and images related to art theft.
Prior to A Cavalier being stolen from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2007, other thefts of cultural property had occurred within the same precinct. Most notably, $1 million in historic and rare specimens stolen from the Australian Museum, which came to light in 2003. This case resulted in a review and upgrade of security at the Museum and a call from the presiding judge that other museums similarly should “maintain adequate systems to prevent such losses.” Unfortunately, this call appeared to go unheeded when in 2004 the theft of a small wooded carving, worth around $35 000, occurred at the Art Gallery of New South Wales- three years before Frans van Mieris’s masterpiece would go missing. Alarm bells did not go off in 2004 and they certainly did not go off in 2007, allowing the painting to be swiftly removed from the Gallery without a trace. It is, of course, still missing, and the police investigation has lain dormant since June 2008. The 2007 theft did, however, precipitate a major overhaul of security at the Gallery, but a headline I spied today disheartened me for it revealed that there are still significant lapses in the security of our cultural property and heritage:
“Rare coins worth almost $1million stolen from State Library of New South Wales”
Amongst the 12 coins stolen, the most significant piece is arguably the “holey dollar” which, according to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, is “an example of one of the first coins struck in Australia.” There are few of these coins available and to give you a sense of their worth, one sold in 2012 for $410 000. Pointing to the cultural and historical significance of this coin and, therefore, to why cultural heritage protection is paramount, Dr Alex Byrne, the State Librarian and the library’s chief executive, said this: “Historically the holey dollar is extraordinarily important. It’s about this country developing all the aspects of a civilised society.”
More than a coin collection was stolen – pieces of history were stolen. Similarly, when A Cavalier was stolen, a piece of history was also stolen. As a society, we were not able to physically hold on to A Cavalier and prevent its theft, but I had hoped we could have held on to the lessons its terrible loss had taught us. Yet, here we go again – another major cultural institution, another major theft… and all within the same precinct. –V.O.
It is a well-known fact that Frans Van Mieris studied painting under Gerrit Dou. This teacher of Van Mieris was considered the best of the fine painters (known as the What would either of these great late artists make of the goings on in the art world today, especially the thefts and forgeries that continue to take place? With Frans Van Mieris’s painting, A Cavalier, still missing, it’s a case of going from Dou to D’oh! When one considers the Oxford Dictionary definition of “D’oh” (seriously, it’s in there – D’oh!), Homer Simpson’s famous utterance is certainly apt:
I keep crashing cars. Doh! What a dummy! (Oxford Dictionary).
For the purposes of this post I prefer to use this example:
Some selfish idiot has stolen A Cavalier. D’oh!
Actually, I am going to imagine that I can read the mind of the despicable thief who stole the painting:
“I [insert the expletive of your choice] stole a masterpiece. D’oh! I am such a [insert another expletive of your choice].”
As a new year commences perhaps foolish and stupid actions, such as the theft of A Cavalier, will receive more police (and public) attention with the recent formation of Australia’s first expert advisory committee on art crime. Announced only last month (December 2013), this advisory committee, under the auspice of the NSW Police Force, acknowledges the long-standing predicament of Australia’s lack of police expertise in this area of crime. It also signals a new era in the policing of art crime. Here’s hoping the stolen Cavalier will benefit from this new and promising endeavour and finally be found – now that would indeed be a wonderful new year’s resolution… to a mysterious art crime! —V.O.
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.
She was very old, this Madonna of the Yarnwinder, painted between 1500 and 1510 by an artist you may have heard of: Leonardo da Vinci (although there are suggestions this artwork may have been painted by one of da Vinci’s students, in which case none of us has may have heard of the artist). The star of the Duke of Buccleuch’s private collection, the Madonna of the Yarnwinder had been in his family’s keeping for 200 years. Her abode: Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland.
Alas, on the 27th August 2003, this Madonna became a damsel in distress, nabbed by some opportunistic and quite brazen thieves. Like the plot from an old black and white silent film, what this damsel needed was the cavalry to come riding in to save the day! Fortunately for her, the cavalry did appear, in the form of the Scottish law enforcement agencies who didn’t give up the search. Four years later, their efforts were rewarded. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder was recovered in October 2007, sans thieves.
Four months before her recovery and thousands of miles away, another painting was stolen – and although he is A Cavalier, there is no cavalry riding in to save the day and recover him. It is up to us, the public, to stand in for the cavalry – to keep the attention on this stolen Cavalier because somewhere someone knows something. Someone knows where Frans van Mieris’s stolen painting is. —V.O.
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.