Theft of a Small Masterpiece in Sydney

Last week a work by Dutch master Frans van Mieris, A Cavalier (Self Portrait), was taken from a busy gallery last Sunday. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

Many of the Australian news outlets refer to an interview on Australian ABC radio with Robert Goldman, an agent with the FBI Art Crime Team. Goldman runs through the usual speculation which occurs when a valuable painting has been stolen, as the market for a high-profile work is negligible. As he said, “Our experience, the FBI experience, is that approximately 80 per cent of museum theft cases of art are inside jobs – either people who work there – people whom we say ‘have the keys to the kingdom’.”

Other theories are that the thieves were just foolish, thinking they could have sold it, when in reality they cannot. Also there is the usual speculation that the work could have been stolen on consignment by a Dr. No character because as Goldman says “There are collectors out there that don’t care if the items are stolen.”

The recovery rate for these works is very low. When this kind of work does resurface, it is often a generation later. The irony in this case is this gallery had begun to trumpet its new security in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Islamic Art. The other possibility may be that security is so lax, a gallery visitor may have just admired the work and wanted it on their wall. Though much of the gallery is under video surveillance, it seems the room where this object was displayed was not.

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