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.
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.
- In February last year, 23 artworks valued at an estimated R700 000 are removed and destroyed at the University of Cape Town by protesters.
- 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.
- 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.