Copycat crimes: Who gives a fake about art fraud in SA?
Warning to collectors: for heaven’s sake don’t be greedy – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is
In October a painting by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, SA’s best-known 20th century landscape painter whose works regularly fetch millions, was impounded by the Hawks. It had been presented to art auction specialists Strauss & Co for valuation; after they became suspicious and did some investigation, they discovered that it actually belonged to the premier’s office in Bloemfontein. Outgoing premier (and current ANC secretary general) Ace Magashule was implicated in its disappearance.
Reports suggested it had been removed from his office, along with various personal belongings, and ended up at his house. He allegedly gave it to his bodyguard as a gift. A third party contacted Strauss & Co with the intention of selling it. “It was one of those instances where the picture was too fantastic to come to us with no provenance or story. We were immediately suspicious,” said Alastair Meredith, senior art specialist at Strauss & Co. “It had identification numbers on the back that suggested a large collection.”
Meredith figured it might be part of a government collection. He called on Gerard de Kamper, chief curator of ceramics and collections management at the University of Pretoria and a highly respected provenance expert, and Jan Middeljans, a conservator, appraiser and Pierneef expert at the Ditsong National Cultural History Museum, to look at it. They confirmed his suspicions.
They weren’t, however, immediately able to trace which department it belonged to. The details on government lists are often sketchy. “The asset registers are pretty much threadbare,” Meredith said. (They often have little more detail than simply stating “Pierneef painting”, which doesn’t help to identify specific works.)
Strauss & Co published calls for information. Eventually somebody recognised the painting and it could be traced to the premier’s office in Bloemfontein. “That night the Hawks were in our office and they took it,” Meredith said.
It has been returned to the premier’s office, but, said Meredith: “The elephant in the room is how many state pictures have disappeared?” There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that other state-owned artworks have been sold on auction overseas.
Middeljans has personally identified two government-owned works that went on auction. “I’m not going to say where – not on the local market,” he said. He wrote to the auctioneers to alert them, “but the person ignored me, and they sold the paintings”.
HOW MUCH ART CRIME IS THERE?
That is a particularly headline-grabbing example of an art crime, but what is the state of art theft in SA? “The theft in the departments is, I think, fairly limited,” Middeljans said. He doesn’t see anything but “incompetence” in the theft of the premier office’s Pierneef. “They didn’t know what it was,” he guessed.
Massie and Middeljans both mentioned one of the most high-profile thefts of recent times, which took place in 2012. The Pretoria Art Museum was fleeced of R17.5m worth of paintings by the likes of Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser and Gerard Sekoto in an armed heist. Most of the works were later found under a bench in a Port Elizabeth cemetery after a Crime Line tip-off. “The last one, the Sekoto, I traced to the US,” Middeljans said. That particular heist was blamed on a prominent Pretoria artist (who remains mysteriously unnamed in all the reports of the crime), who allegedly commissioned the thieves to steal the works for them.
But it turns out art crime in SA has little to do with what Massie referred to as “a Dr No type character sitting there … ordering these things”. Meredith said he has heard about possible syndicates, but, despite his immersion in the market, he has heard very little that’s verifiable about organised art crime. Targeted thefts are more of a problem abroad than in SA.
There is anecdotal evidence that a rare Chinese artefact in a local museum was specifically targeted and, although rumour has it a security guard was bribed with R1m, he reported the incident and the robbery was foiled.
IGNORANCE AND LACK OF SOPHISTICATION
In SA, at least, the art theft racket is enabled not so much by sophistication and connoisseurship as by ignorance and greed. Neither the thieves nor the people who are used by thieves as a laundry for fake or stolen works seem to grasp accurately how the art world works. Massie said most often he suspected thieves “see that an artwork is worth R1m and they think they’ll get R1m”, which isn’t the case.
Although everyone I spoke to while researching this article agreed with Massie’s wry description of the market as “heavily unregulated”, there is no police department dedicated to cultural crime or heritage objects – they’ve been seconded to rhino poaching. The experts all noted that the art market in SA is so small that it is actually very difficult to launder stolen or fake works. So you end up with the slightly contradictory situation where the market is unregulated and hardly policed and the archives aren’t comprehensive, but it’s still really difficult for thieves to monetise stolen works through legitimate channels.
“You can’t buy an illegitimate picture and do anything with it,” Meredith said. “The opportunity to genuinely liquidate a major picture in this market is tiny.”
“There’s this presumption that in SA the art world is disjointed, but they’re not as disjointed as people think,” De Kamper said. “If somebody brings in a fake (to an auction house) within a day or two all the big auction houses know about it.”
Massie added: “If (the thieves) don’t have an endgame, it’s going to be very difficult for them because, even if (stolen artworks) pop up in the auction world four or five years later, there’s the art theft register, there’s knowledge, there’s a question about provenance.”
THE FAKE PRELLER
In March 2018 the cover work on the catalogue for the Bonhams South African Sale was an impressive-looking work by Alexis Preller, at an estimate of between £50,000 and £80,000. By chance, a friend of De Kamper’s had alerted him to a similar (or the same) piece that had gone on sale in the UK some months before.
“It sold at another auction house called Eastbourne Auctioneers in England,” recalled De Kamper. They both noticed how similar it was to a work that had been sold at local art auctioneers Aspire for more than R7m.
De Kamper saved the picture. “And then, three or four months later, when the Bonhams catalogue came out, (there it was) on the front cover,” he said. “I thought, is there another copy … or is it that one from Eastbourne Auctioneers?”
The “Eastbourne” work hadn’t actually been identified as a Preller. Although it was obviously a copy, and had been painted in Preller’s time, it had been signed with the initials “GR”. In the months between its sale at Eastbourne Auctioneers and Bonhams, however, the initials had been painted out, and a forgery of Preller’s signature had been added. “I sent my finding to Bonhams,” said De Kamper. It was quietly withdrawn from the sale.
De Kamper suggested that fakes are “a bigger problem than stolen artworks”. He reckoned about a third of the works he’s asked to investigate are fakes. “There’s somebody in Canada that fakes high-end artworks,” he said.
Middeljans knows of others who paint fake Pierneefs in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. In the noughties, there was the famous case of Frans Claerhout, once a highly collectible SA-based Belgian painter, whose work was forged in Bloemfontein. And Meredith made reference to a particular group of artists for which he sees more fakes than real works, but would not be drawn on the details.
Middeljans said that for thieves fakes are better money than stolen works. They’re easier to sell, sometimes via online platforms. “I think you’ll find that that particular forger made more than 800 (online) sales,” said Massie, referring to the Claerhout fakes. “The buyers were delighted to be buying for R5,000 something that they thought was going to be R50,000.”
Middeljans said the quality of forgeries tends to be amateurish. “The Free State Pierneefs are rubbish,” he said. “The Natal Pierneefs are just … naaah. The guy must learn to paint!”
Nevertheless, De Kamper pointed out that minor works by famous artists are the favourite terrain of forgers. “For example, they fake Pierneef sketches or little watercolours,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to trace the provenance because they’ve normally never been published before (and) they’re easier to copy because they don’t need to be a complete work. If I find a sketch by Maud Sumner or Pierneef, except if it’s something very, very specific and well-known, I’m not even prepared to say whether I think it’s real.”
One of the frustrations, said Susie Goodman, executive director at Strauss & Co, is that: “The problem is we can’t do anything about a fake if it walks through the door.” They can’t impound it or shred it. Meredith added: “There’s legally nothing we can do.”
Still, there are initiatives in the pipeline to improve the fight against art crime. “The government is trying to restart a committee to combat cultural crime through the department of arts and culture,” Massie said. From 2019, the University of Pretoria will offer a masters degree in conservation. There is also talk about plans to digitise the university’s archive – the largest in SA – to make it more efficient.
But how do art buyers protect themselves? “I think, if you are going to invest meaningfully in the art-collectibles world, you should do it via dealers, auction houses or galleries of high repute who have done all the checks and balances,” Massie said. And for heaven’s sake don’t be greedy – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!