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Discussing heritage-related crime

The missing painting: Gerard Sekoto’s Street Scene (1939).

In the face of violent crime in South Africa, heritage-related crime fades into oblivion, and statistically, there is no evidence of the true extent of this crime in South Africa, says senior lecturer in Unisa’s Department of Police Practice, Bernadine Benson.

Benson, who has conducted extensive research on this subject and is currently doing her PhD on the alleged illicit trade in heritage objects in Gauteng and its possible causes, was interviewed by the Financial Mail shortly after the theft of valuable heritage paintings from the Pretoria Art Museum on 11 November.

Three men, pretending to be art students and a professor, entered the Pretoria Art Museum on that Sunday morning requesting to see specific paintings by some of the country’s most famous artists. Officials said that they then held the museum curator at gunpoint, tied him up, and took off with six paintings. One of the paintings, Irma Stern’s Two Malay Musicians, valued at about R12 million, was apparently too big to fit in the getaway car and was left behind.

On 13 November, four of the five missing paintings were found in a church cemetery in Port Elizabeth – more than 1100 km from Pretoria. The recovered works were Maggie Laubser’s Cat and Petunias (1936), JH Pierneef’s Eland and Bird (1961), Irma Stern’s Fishing Boats (1931), and Hugo Naude’s Hottentot Chief.

Gerard Sekoto’s Street Scene (1939), worth about R7 million, remains missing.

The National Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, strongly condemned the theft. “The theft of works by some of South Africa’s leading icons, like Irma Stern and Gerard Sekoto, is a setback for the nation and visual arts. Artwork in our museums and galleries are not just beautiful images to look at, these creative expressions reflect our rich history and culture.”

Q & A with Bernadine Benson by Prakash Naidoo (Financial Mail)

 

FM: How serious is heritage crime and the theft of artworks in SA?

Benson: From what we know it’s very serious.

FM: As a crime, is this a relatively new phenomenon?

Benson: No, it has been around for a while. It has just been under-reported.

FM: Are policy makers doing enough to protect our heritage?

Benson: They are trying their best with limited resources. But a lot more can be done, like changing the locations of galleries and museums, some of which are in crime spots.

FM: What are the main points of weakness in our system?

Benson: Poor public awareness of the value of our heritage. Also, security at institutions and maintenance can be improved.

FM: Is there a market for illicit SA artefacts and art?

Benson: There is definitely a market internationally. But SA is also being used as a transit country.

FM: Which countries are worth looking to for guidance on how to improve our security?

Benson: Italy and France appear to have got it right, as have the US and the UK. And the Germans seem to have a good system in place.

FM: Why is it important to protect our art and artefacts?

Benson: It is what has been entrusted to our care. We are a young democracy, defining a new identity, and our history is important.

 

Below are pictures of the four paintings found in a Port Elizabeth cemetery:

Hugo Naude’s Hottentot Chief.

Irma Stern’s Fishing Boats (1931).

JH Pierneef’s Eland and Bird (1961).

Maggie Laubser’s Cat and Petunias (1936).

* Story compiled by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester

* Interview conducted by Prakash Naidoo, journalist at the Financial Mail, and used with permission.

 

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