The artful dodger: How an artist was taunted over his stolen art
For five months, Nicholas Hlobo was tormented by the man who was allegedly behind a R15.5m art theft.
For four months, renowned South African contemporary artist Nicholas Hlobo was taunted by the man allegedly behind the theft of his multi-million-dollar portfolio.
Late-night WhatsApp messages would describe how sculptures, canvas works and paintings – destined for an international art fair – would be destroyed if a R350,000 ransom was not paid.
“I was beside myself,” said Hlobo, speaking to Times Select from his Johannesburg studio.
The theft sparked an international investigation involving the art world, specialised private investigators and multiple policing agencies. The artwork – valued at R15.5-million – was stolen in September, the day it was to be flown from Johannesburg to Paris for Hlobo’s debut exhibition at the FAIC International Contemporary Art Fair.International policing agency Interpol describes the black market for art as being as lucrative as markets dealing in drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods, with global estimates putting the amount of art and antiquities stolen annually at estimated R30-billion.
Despite the stolen pieces being globally blacklisted on various art platforms, the alleged thief – a Malawian national – continued to taunt Hlobo evading capture.
The thief, according to private investigators from SSG Security and Hlobo, appears to have been an aggrieved colleague of Hlobo’s.
“When I received the first message that my works were taken I thought he was joking. He told me not to think of getting my pieces back if I was not prepared to pay the ransom.”
Beside himself, Hlobo, through SSG and the police, began tracking the alleged thief using cellphone service providers, with police investigators flagging his passport with Home Affairs.Hlobo said both he and his colleague had worked on the pieces together. He said for months the messages would tell him that the theft was because of how Hlobo had treated him.
“I thought we were friends. I trained him from when I found him working as a seamster in Johannesburg. I saw his potential and thought I could help him to become something great.
“He had it in him to go far in the art world,” said Hlobo.The tables, according to SSG, began to turn on the thief as information on his and the artworks whereabouts emerged.
SSG spokesman Aron Mashigo said late last week that they received a message to say the artworks were being kept in the storeroom at the back of a house in Turffontein.He said when they went to the house they found the pieces stacked neatly in the room, wrapped in plastic.
“They were fortunately in immaculate condition. The alleged thief, who is technologically savvy, has been able to stay ahead of us and police,” he said.
Hlobo said that he did not believe that his former colleague had acted alone.“Fortunately the blacklisting, which was done internationally through the Lehmann Maupin gallery in the US, to which I’m associated, meant that he could not sell the collection.”He said after the blacklisting he was called by several South Africans saying they had been offered the artwork.
Hlobo said the impact of the theft was huge, especially from a financial and reputation perspective.
He said he had not been expecting to receive the message on where he could find his collection.
“It was out of the blue. I really thought it was gone for good.”