SA's priceless heritage stolen: 10 cases worth R15m unsolved

2017-09-24 00:00 - Jacques Stoltz
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Cape Town - Paintings by local art masters Gerard Sekoto, Thomas Baines and Irma Stern, rare geological specimens, coins, meteorites, military medals, Chinese ceramics and a valuable European snuffbox collection are just some of the items that have been registered as stolen in South Africa.

Altogether, the pieces are worth up to R15 million.

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Missing gems

The SA Heritage Resources Information System lists 261 missing items. However, research conducted in 2012 suggests that the figure is higher. The research reported that a staggering 2 665 items from 30 institutions were reported lost or stolen in a five-year period.

While experts believe that art theft is a global problem, local museums and galleries have been left especially vulnerable after decades of insufficient funding and lack of investment in management systems and controls. Poor oversight is compounded by high staff turnover, resulting in inexperienced personnel overseeing scores of items. Many posts at key institutions remain unfilled.

While all state entities must have heritage asset registers, many institutions are grappling with the task of conducting audits and updating inventories.

Only about 6.72% of the estimated 9 million objects in the collections in Ditsong museums have been fully inventoried in compliance with accounting standards introduced in 2014.

In the absence of trustworthy asset registers, the true loss of our nation’s heritage is as murky as the underground basements meant to protect it. 

SEE: Thulamela: SA's gold heritage stolen

Ten cases that made the headlines
  1. In February last year, 23 artworks valued at an estimated R700 000 are removed and destroyed at the University of Cape Town by protesters.
  2. In April 2014, five vases of Chinese origin are stolen from the East London Museum. This followed an earlier incident at the museum in which a small wooden box and seven meteorites were stolen.
  3. In November 2012, R17.5-million worth of art is stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum in a heist that made international headlines. A piece by Irma Stern is recovered at the scene, while police later find four other works by Maggie Laubser, JH Pierneef, Hugo Naude and Stern at a cemetery in Port Elizabeth. Gerald Sekoto's Street Scene (1939) is however still missing.


Gerard Sekoto, Street Scene, 1939
Source: Pretoria Art Museum

   4.Valued at the time at R3 million, an oil painting by JH Pierneef is stolen in October 2012 from the Totius House Museum in Potchefstroom.

   5. In May 2012, rare Asian ceramics are stolen from Groot Constantia Estate. This is believed to be the second such incident in a decade at the historic manor house.


Source: Iziko Museums of South Africa

A piece of porcelain that was stolen from Groot Constantia Estate.

6. Three valuable bronze sculptures disappear from the Johannesburg Art Gallery in October 2011. The theft of works by Ernest Ullman, Sydney Kumalo and Romano Romanelli followed an earlier theft in January that year of a late-18th century bronze by French sculptor Jules Dalou.

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Sydney Khumalo's Mourning Woman

7. In May 2010, porcelain worth an estimated R500 000 is stolen from the Academy of Science and Art in Pretoria.

8. In April 2008, two horns from a mounted white rhinoceros are stolen from the Iziko South African Museum. This follows similar incidents at the Museum of Natural History in Pretoria, Reinet House in Graaff-Reinet and the King William's Town museum.

9. Two United Nations’ medals awarded to Nelson Mandela are stolen from the Nelson Mandela Museum in Umtata in October 2000.

10.  In that same year, antique maps are stolen by armed gunmen from the William Cullen Library at Wits in Johannesburg. 

Jacques Stoltz is co-founder of The Heritage Monitoring Project.

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