Last week one of our lovely colleagues just forwarded a link to this news story, ‘Sculpture found 10 years and 300km later‘, about a steel sculpture that had been stolen from outside an Auckland library and found, a decade on, somewhere near Ōhakune. Someone spotted it because it had been included in a photograph on a real estate listing! Earlier this year another colleague had shared a link to Interpol’s ‘Most wanted works of art’ poster (PDF, 709 KB), which I hadn’t come across before, and which led me to look further at their website, where you can see other images of recently stolen artworks.
All of this made me wonder about art thefts in New Zealand – the ones I could remember off the top of my head were Colin McCahon’s triptych ‘Urewera mural‘, the wooden crucifix from the Chapel of Futuna in Karori, in Wellington, and the statue of Pania from the Napier waterfront.
The ‘Urewera mural’ had been commissioned for the Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre building in the 1970s. For a bit of background, you can read about the debate between McCahon, the park board and Ngāi Tuhoe about the wording on the painting on the Department of Conservation website. The mural was stolen in June 1997, in what was seen as an act of protest by Tuhoe. The work was returned 15 months later as a result of negotiations between arts patron Jenny Gibbs and Tuhoe activists Tame Iti and Te Kaha.
After the painting’s return, conservation work was done at Auckland Art Gallery and it also toured a number of other North Island galleries. It was rehung in Āniwaniwa in 2000, but seven years later the building itself was closed and the painting moved back to the Auckland Art Gallery, where it still is today.
The crucifix from the Chapel of Futuna was made by sculptor Jim Allen specifically for the John Scott-designed chapel. It was stolen around 1999–2000, at the time the land around the chapel was being developed for housing and the chapel itself was being used as storage. Police discovered the crucifix on a rural property in Taranaki in 2012. It was reinstated in the chapel in March 2013, after restoration work by conservator Carolina Izzo.
The story of Pania made national headlines when it was stolen in October 2005. The statue, modelled on local girl May Robin, was presented to the city in 1954. Fortunately, the statue was found by police the month after it was taken, and was reinstated on Napier’s foreshore.
Many of the media stories about the theft of Pania also mentioned the theft of a Paul Dibble sculpture, which had been stolen from the grounds of a restaurant on the Kapiti Coast some weeks earlier. That sculpture, ‘Long horizon’, weighed around a tonne and the thieves appeared to have carefully planned how they were going to remove it. It too was returned within weeks – in this case because a man called the local paper saying he knew where it was but wanted a reward, which he received. Although the statue was returned and the informant later convicted of blackmail, the thieves were never caught.
Looking at these examples you have to wonder whether New Zealand art thieves have a particularly odd mindset – there seem to have been a number of instances where someone just thought: ‘Wow, that’s really big. It must weigh a tonne. I’ll steal that!”
These examples were just off the top of my head. I suspected there were probably other New Zealand art thefts out there, possibly of artworks that didn’t need heavy lifting machinery to move them! And I was right: a quick search of Papers Past revealed a number of pre-1945 art thefts. One of these didn’t have the happy ending that the above examples above had – Psyche, a painting by British artist Solomon J. Solomon, was stolen from Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1942 and was never recovered.