What the Guardian later called a “garden variety ram-raid” happened around 4.00 am on the morning of Saturday, 1 April 2016. In a tree-lined upmarket street close to the city centre in Auckland, New Zealand, a vehicle, later recovered by police at the scene, smashed the plate-glass front window of the International Art Centre in Parnell. A sign written on the window had proclaimed that an “Important and Rare Art” auction was to take place a few days later. A second vehicle was reportedly seen leaving the scene shortly afterwards.
Displayed in the gallery’s window, and taken during the raid, were the intended centrepieces of that auction: two companion portraits, painted by Bohemian-born and Viennese-educated émigré artist Gottfried Lindauer in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, entitled Chieftainess Ngati-Raure and Chief Ngati-Raure.
The auction house selling the works had valued them in the run-up to the auction at around NZ $350,000 - $450,000 each. Local art world figures expressed dismay at the thefts, characterising Lindauer’s works as “mesmerising and … a significant and critically important record of Maori culture.” Immediate and extensive publicity both in New Zealand and elsewhere would seem to ensure that a legitimate mainstream sale or disposal of the artworks appears unlikely.
New Zealand-based art historian and art crime specialist Penelope Jackson, author of the important recent book, Art Thieves, Fakers and Forgers: The New Zealand Story (2016, Te Awa Press) noted to the Guardian:
“These are powerful, full-frontal works, instantly recognisable. The thieves may have done enough research to steal them by using a car, but they may not have thoroughly researched where and how they are going to be able to sell them.”
Within 24 hours media reports tentatively drew a possible link with earlier and speculative internet chatter expressing anger that the portraits of two ancestors were being offered for sale rather than returned to the descendents of the sitters, but in the hours and days after the raid, little is known for certain and the works remain missing.
Any information can be relayed to New Zealand Police in Auckland Police on:
00 64 9 302 6832
or anonymously to the New Zealand Crimestoppers tip-line:
0800 555 111
By Judge Arthur Tompkins