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Tag Archives: art theft

Crime and the Art Market

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Riah Pryor Crime and the Art Market (Lund Humphries, 2016)

How corrupt is the art market?

Riah Pryor is an art history graduate who worked as a researcher at New Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit. Her experience should have provided more  to the reader. Instead there is a tiny dab of narrative at the start of chapters to suggest something of the author’s experience.

It is difficult to define art crimes; Pryor mentions a Nth Ireland police report where a stolen tube of paint was classed as an art theft. Pryor’s focus is on the economic side of art crimes: stolen art, illegally exported antiquities, art forgery and art fraud rather than art vandalism, art censorship and art as criminalised protests. However, in this did introduce me to other ways that art can be used in crime; one of these is ‘elegant bribery’.

‘Elegant bribery’ where an official is given a fake of little value, the official then puts the fake up for auction, where it is sold at a high price that a genuine work would attract to another member of syndicate acting as if he mistook the fake as a genuine. In this way all the transactions appear legitimate. I can only assume that elegant bribery was detected only through data matching because Pryor doesn’t give many details about this or other the crimes.

No particular crimes are looked at in any depth in the book. The lack of detail might be deliberate in order not to assist in crimes, as attested in an anecdote from an art authentication lab expert but the lack of details makes the book read like a colourless report about art crime from the perspective of law enforcement. It is as dry as a policy paper and her conclusions, although reasonable, are not particularly useful nor informative.

“There is no ‘correct’ reason to care about art crime, or at least no reason which all will agree on. However, determining why someone does or does not care is probably the most effective way to go about working with them to agree on future ways of tackling it.” (p.88)

Dividing the book into “Villains” and “Heroes” is a simplistic strategy and shows Pryor’s police mind set from time her New Scotland Yard. It also fails to work with Pryor’s own solution to get all sectors of the arts industry involved with stopping art crime for their own benefit. 

Art crime is a hot topic, at least for publishers, art historians and the general public, although not for the police who seem to prefer their criminals violent, stupid and intoxicated. Only if you are obsessed with the subject should you read Pryor’s Crime and the Art Market as it is simply the most boring book on the subject. If this has whet your appetite for more about art and crime then please read some of my other posts on the subject.

The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Forgery Trial Book

The Forgery Trial

The Case of Art Forgeries

True Crime and Art

Whaley’s Stolen Paintings

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The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Bizarrely, Picasso’s Weeping Woman was not the first of his paintings to have been stolen from an Australian state art gallery to make a point. In 1967 Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (The beautiful Dutch woman) was stolen from the Queensland Art Gallery. At the time the painting was valued at $200,000 (the equivalent of $2,367,132 today).

Picasso had painted it in 1905 on cardboard mounted on wood, 77.1 × 65.8 centimetres, in gouache, a water-based poster-paint. La belle Hollandaise depicts a young woman wearing nothing but a traditional Dutch lacy-cloth cap. It was painted when Picasso was between his early ‘Blue period’, when he painted sad, downbeat subjects, and his ‘Rose period,’ when he focused on pleasant scenes in a primarily pinky hue.

The eccentric multi-millionaire grazier Major Harold De Vahl Rubin had purchased La belle Hollandaise for £6,000 in 1940 (about $477,882 today). In 1959 he wanted to know its current value, so he put it up for auction and bought it again, setting a record for the highest price paid for a living artist. Satisfied that he knew its value, he then donated his entire collection of modern European art to the Queensland Art Gallery: a Degas, a Renoir, a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Vlaminck, and three works by Picasso, including La belle Hollandaise.

In the middle of the night, on Monday 5 June, Robert Ferguson climbed up some scaffolding on the outside of the gothic brick building on Gregory Terrace in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. The building is now known as the Old Museum Building, but back in 1967 it was the Queensland Art Gallery. Ferguson forced open a top floor window with a screwdriver and entered the Gallery. Fortunately for Ferguson, there was no burglar alarm in that part of the Gallery. Little is known about the 22-year-old New Zealander who had been working as a labourer, but his father confirmed to reporters that his son did have a passion for art and was a frequent visitor to art galleries. Ferguson later claimed to have been motivated by a strange idealism. He was aware that the Gallery was considering the sale of La belle Hollandaise to raise money for a new building to be built on the southern bank of the Brisbane River. So he decided to steal the painting, later telling the police, “I was satisfied the public did not appreciate the painting, so I decided to steal it.”

Once he had stolen the painting, Ferguson’s main problem was where to keep it. He claims that for five days he hid it wrapped in blankets in the bush on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha. How the painting survived two rainy days and nights in such conditions is one of the many mysteries surrounding this theft.

Ferguson then decided to return the painting to Mrs Julie Rubin, the widow of the original Australian owner, Major Harold Rubin. Mrs Rubin was frightened by the sudden appearance of this strange young man at her mansion, ‘Toorak House’, in the inner-northern suburb of Hamilton, Brisbane on Sunday 11 June. However, as he was carrying a familiar Picasso, she let him in. Ferguson wanted her to reconsider her late husband’s gift and begged her to keep the painting for a month before reporting it to the police. Mrs Rubin agreed to this and the young man left.

The very next day the police arrived with a search warrant and found La belle Hollandaise in a spare bedroom. It was very embarrassing for Mrs Rubins, who then refused to give the police any information about the young man, except to say that she didn’t know him. This is odd because, who other than Mrs Rubin and Ferguson could have informed the police about the location of the painting?

Ferguson was not arrested until Saturday 24 June. Somehow the police were able to track him down. When they did they found a loaded pistol in his possession. He confessed to the theft, pleaded guilty to the firearms charges and was jailed for a month for possession of the loaded pistol.

La belle Hollandaise still hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.


Whaley’s Stolen Paintings

Maybe no-one had stolen art in Victoria in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Australian thieves or reporters had no interest in art for it wasn’t until 1924 that a local art theft is reported in a Melbourne newspaper.

In The Argus on page 18 under the unlikely heading “Country News”: “During Mr George Whaley’s absence from Cowes a few days ago someone broke into his boathouse and stole 14 paintings.” There are no other details or further reports about the theft.

Genista Sydnet

George Whaley, The Ferry Genista in Sydney, c. 1887. Oil painting (Image courtesy of the Phillip Island and District Historical Soc.)

The anonymous reporter had made one mistake, the paintings had been stolen from Whaley’s houseboat, not boathouse.

“The artist began building another vessel, about the year 1919.  On the beach in front of the Bay View site, his house boat the Ophir gradually took shape.  This odd-looking scow was 30 ft. long, flat-bottomed, with bluff ends, and a stateroom that took up all the deck space, in which its owner used to cook, eat, sleep and paint.  After 12 months here, an attempt was made to tow the Ophir to new surroundings.  She was floated off on a high tide one morning, but was found to be leaking badly, and on coming abreast of Erehwon Point began to sink.  Feverish baling and a hurried beaching succeeded in saving her, and on subsequent tides, she was coaxed almost up to the tea-tree.  The artist, who continued to live on board for another year, covered the walls with paintings of seascapes, nudes, and portraits.  This quaint abode however then began to fall to pieces through exposure, and its owner sold it for five shillings.”

J. W. Gliddon Phillip Island in Picture and Story (Cowes, [Vic.] : Committee of Trust “Warley”, Cowes Bush Nursing Hospital, 1968)

Ophir

The Ophir at Erehwon Point c.1920 (Image courtesy of the Phillip Island and District Historical Soc.)

It can’t have been very difficult for a thief to break in to the Ophir beached near the tea-trees in a dilapidated condition.

George Whaley painted for the emerging post-war tourist trade in Cowes selling his paintings for 7s 6d, about $50 each. So the fourteen stolen paintings could not have made the thief a fortune, even if he was able to sell all of them.

George Whaley was born in 1862 in England, the son of a Nottingham lace manufacturer. He was not yet twenty-five when arrived in Melbourne on 4th February 1887 on the RMS Potosi. Why he moved to Australia is not clear was he seeking his fortune or was he pursuing the romantic dream of becoming an artist? He described himself on the shipping records as a ‘clerk’, perhaps he had worked for his father in that capacity. Whaley had also received some training in art for soon after he arrived in Australia he completed a competent oil painting of The Ferry Genista in Sydney.

When Whaley arrived in Melbourne in 1887 he would have found a city undergoing a boom in real estate prices. Six years later there was a banking crisis and eleven banks collapsed around Australia. Somehow Whaley found work throughout this turbulent period and in 1899 the thirty-eight year old Whaley married Ida Bridget Martin the daughter of German immigrants. They had four children. It is not clear what work Whaley was doing but he and his growing family moved around Victoria eventually settling in Castlemaine.

In Cowes Whaley lived his bohemian beachcomber life while Whaley’s wife, Ida remained in Castlemaine, perhaps Whaley was visiting her at the time of the robbery. George Whaley died on 3rd April 1933 in Castlemaine.

Thanks to John Jansson of the Phillip Island and District Historical Society for all his research into George Whaley and the images without which this post would not be possible.

 

I am currently researching art theft in Melbourne, so if you have been the victim of art theft, or the thief, and would like to discuss it with me please contact me.


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