Valuable stolen artworks may be melted and lost forever

2011-10-02 10:00
Erna van Wyk
The curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) fears that three valuable bronze artworks stolen a week ago might end up being melted down.

Chief curator Antoinette ­Murdoch on Friday said staff at the gallery discovered the break-in at the ­Contemporary Store of the JAG last Sunday afternoon.

The stolen works are Kings of the Universe by German-born South African artist Ernest Ullman, Mourning Women by South African sculptor Sydney Kumalo and Peter Pan by well-known Italian sculptor Romano Romanelli.

“Staff found the three sculptures missing and two more were found on the floor, wrapped and ready to be moved, as well as electronic equipment stacked on a trolley,” Murdoch said.

On Monday afternoon, a gardener working at the gallery allegedly tried to break into Murdoch’s ­office while she was there.

The man fled but was apprehended by police when he turned up for work on Tuesday morning.

Police are now comparing his fingerprints to those found at ­Murdoch’s office and at the storeroom where the sculptures were stolen, she said.

“We suspect it was an inside job,” Murdoch said.

The JAG is increasingly becoming a target for art thieves and Murdoch said it is clear their methods are becoming more sophisticated.

In January, the JAG beefed up ­security measures after a rare Jules Dalou sculpture was stolen.

Murdoch said an extra R1.5 million is needed for more security measures but this can only be done with the help of the public.

Art expert and managing director of Artinsure, Gordon Massie, said public institutions in South Africa are extremely vulnerable to art thieves because proper risk management measures, such as security and control, are not in place.

He said: “This is not due to the curators or directors of these institutions but a funding and government ­policy priority issue. Are you going to put funds into art or rather eduction, job creation or health?”

Massie said the theft of items made from recyclable material such as bronze have increased, leading to a strong possibility that these works are stolen for the value of their scrap metal as opposed to their aesthetic value as works of art.