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How to protect your prized possessions as art theft rises in South Africa

Netflix's 'This is a Robbery: World's Biggest Art Heist'. Picture: Netflix

Netflix's 'This is a Robbery: World's Biggest Art Heist'. Picture: Netflix

Published Sep 17, 2021


While South Africa is among the highest-ranking crime spots in the world, art theft remains relatively low in the country.

But recently, during the national lockdown, high-profile art thefts were reportedly on the rise, with insurers paying out millions of rands in claims in the past year.

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In April, over 31 paintings, valued at R500 000, were stolen during an art heist in Pretoria.

These masterpieces by renowned South African artists including WH Coetzer, Ignatius Marx, Helene Kapp, Margaret Gradwell and Gerhard Smit were being transported from Sandton Auctioneers to Pretoria art dealer Ben Keogh when the robbery took place.

And while the vehicle was later recovered, the paintings had apparently disappeared into thin air.

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Christelle Colman, managing director at Elite Risk Acceptances, a subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure, said an art theft investigative exposé zoomed in on how organised criminals were selling expensive artwork on the black market.

“Big-ticket thefts make good headlines when, in reality, there are countless artworks valued at between R5 000 and R100 000 reported damaged or stolen each year,” said Colman.

She added: “Although this type of crime is not yet endemic in South Africa, it is something that high-net-worth individuals with global exposure and personal art collections should take note of.”

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With the rise in art theft in South Africa, we look at the top five most famous art theft cases in the world.

To date, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist remains the biggest unsolved mystery, in addition to being the largest art crime in the world.

The incident drew so much attention, Netflix decided to release a docu-series titled “This is a Robbery: The World's Greatest Art Heist”, based on the events of March 18, 1990, when artworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

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Two men disguised as police officers managed to pull off what may well be the biggest robbery in the history of art crime.

The case remains unsolved, the pictures and objects valued today at $500 million have not been recovered despite a $10m reward.

This is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist, courtesy of Netflix, 2021

In April 1991, 20 paintings, estimated to be worth $500 million, were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, including Vincent Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters". The paintings were found shortly afterwards in an abandoned car not far from the crime scene.

In August 2003, thieves stole the "Madonna of the Yarnwinder" by Leonardo da Vinci at the Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland. The work, painted in the early 16th century, was valued at about $53 million. It was recovered in Scotland four years later.

In February 2008 four oil paintings by Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Van Gogh and Claude Monet worth $164 million were stolen from the Buehrle Collection in Zurich. The Monet and Van Gogh were found soon after, and the Cezanne in 2012 in Serbia.

In May 2010 five paintings worth $117.98 million were stolen from the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

The stolen works included Picasso's Dove with Green Peas, Matisse's Pastorale, Braque's Olive tree near l'Estaque, Modigliani's Woman on the range and Leger's Still life with candlestick.

Colman shares top tips on how art collectors can protect their high value collectibles from art jacking.

Complete an inventory of your art assets and collectibles or, even better, get a professional valuation done. Priceless collectibles could be hanging on the walls of many unsuspecting homeowners.

Who knows, perhaps the painting handed down by your grandmother, and now gathering dust in your living room, turns out to be an early Battiss or Sekoto. You won’t know until you have it valued.

Individuals who have single high-value artworks or a collection of pieces should consider placing their contents insurance cover with a specialist insurer who understands the unique risks associated with collectables, to avoid costly surprises at claims stage.

Ensure that each art collectable is correctly insured at insurance replacement value and review this valuation frequently. Art prices tend to fluctuate widely based on their perceived collectability, the success or death of an artist, and exchange rate fluctuations.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Old Mutual.

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