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Art worth $2 million stolen from South Africa museum

November 12, 2012|By Robyn Dixon
  • "Street Scene" by Gerard Sekoto was one of the works stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum.
"Street Scene" by Gerard Sekoto was one of the works stolen from… (City of Tshwane )

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Just one thing went wrong for the thieves during Sunday’s daring theft from the Pretoria Art Museum, which netted about $2 million worth of famous South African works.

One of the paintings was too big to fit with the three robbers into their getaway car, a Toyota Avanza.

So they left the piece, "Two Malay Musicians" by Irma Stern, on the sidewalk and sped off with five other works. The painting by Stern, one of the country’s best known artists, was the most valuable of the works taken from the museum, worth around $1.5 million.

The robbery exposed the low level of security at the museum, which contains a number of South Africa’s most important works of art. It is a problem seen at other public South African galleries, according to critics.

The museum’s closed-circuit television system was out of order at the time of the robbery, and three private security guards were protecting the collection, according to South African media reports. The closed-circuit TV was repaired Monday.

According to South African police, the thieves arrived posing as an art lecturer and two students and paid the $1.20 admission fee.

Once inside, the men held up a security guard, Daywood Khans, at gunpoint and pulled out a list of the works they wanted. They grabbed the six paintings from the wall and left the building, police said.

In addition to the Stern painting, they took works by Gerard Sekoto, J.H. Pierneef, Maggie Laubser and Hugo Naude.

"They pulled out a list and said they were looking for so-and-so painting, which is among our old masterpieces," Khans said in a local radio interview. "They left one of the paintings behind when it did not fit into their getaway car."

The museum was closed to the public the day after the theft.

Johan Welmans, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's main opposition party, claimed that he had warned the Tshwane municipality, which covers the city of Pretoria, about the lack of security at the museum.

"I have alerted the Tshwane metro about the lack of commitment toward this institution for a long time. The impression I got is that the Pretoria Art Museum is simply not a priority for the ANC-led Tshwane metro," he said in a statement.

Pieter de Necker, a spokesman for the Tshwane mayor, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, told the South African Press Assn. that the Pretoria Art Museum was not the only art institution with security concerns.

"It [security] is a concern for many museums across the country. The criminals walked in like art lovers and robbed the museum at gunpoint," he said.

Interpol has been informed of the thefts, officials said.

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