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South African police find four works of art in cemetery

South Africa police believe they've found four stolen works of art

November 13, 2012|By Robyn Dixon
  • This photo released by the South African Police Service on Tuesday shows the four paintings found in a cemetery under a bench in Port Elizabeth. They are believed to be among five paintings stolen Sunday from the Pretoria Art Museum.
This photo released by the South African Police Service on Tuesday shows… (South African Police Services…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A police squad on Tuesday found four works of art believed to be among the five stolen this week from South Africa's Pretoria Art Museum, tracking them down in a church cemetery in Port Elizabeth, about 650 miles from the scene of the theft.

News that the works had been found broke Tuesday on Port Elizabeth radio station Algoa FM, which reported the paintings were found undamaged under a bench.

"Our dog unit of Port Elizabeth received information from an informer which led them to the Dutch Reformed Church in Sundridge Park. At the back of the property they found four paintings and it seems to be similar to the paintings that were stolen in the Gauteng area," police officer Sandra Janse van Rensburg told the radio station.

Museum curators were examining photographs of the works to assess whether they were the missing paintings, according to media reports. Police said there was no obvious damage to the paintings.

The station's website ran photographs of the artworks lying under a timber and brick bench, with a red quilt half wrapped around them. The site also ran photographs of the works laid out on red plastic after recovery by police.

The paintings were stolen Sunday in a brazen robbery by three men posing as an art lecturer and his students. They held up a staff member, produced a list of works they wanted and left the gallery with six of South Africa's best known paintings.

The gallery's closed circuit television security system was out of order when the thieves struck.

The most valuable of the works, "Two Malay Musicians", a 1930 work by Irma Stern, was too big to fit in the robbers' getaway car, so they ditched it on the sidewalk before speeding away. In all, the thieves took works valued at more than $2 million by Stern, Gerard Sekoto, J.H. Pierneef, Maggie Laubser and Hugo Naude.

The art heist led to calls for tighter security at public galleries across South Africa, where security is often lax, according to critics.

After the theft, the museum closed its doors and removed its most valuable works from the walls pending an investigation into security. The gallery is expected to reopen next week.

Experts said later the thieves were unlikely to get the market price if they tried to sell the paintings on the black market, because the works were so well known.

The one painting not recovered was Sekoto's "Street Scene."

The theft sparked speculation, including one media report claiming to have a tip-off that a prominent South African artist was behind the thefts. No arrests have been made.


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