Plans are afoot to establish Australia’s first committee to help the police investigate art crime.
It has been three years since Bob Dickerson and fellow painter Charles Blackman won a court case against the Melbourne gallery dealer Peter Gant for selling fake copies of their works. While it was a coup for the octogenarian artists, they’ve yet to recoup the $300,000 they spent on legal fees that Gent was directed to pay back.
“Even if you take them to court and it has been proven, nothing happens really,” says Dickerson, 89, who still paints every day.
His step-son the lawyer and art consultant Stephen Nall, said the trial was tough.
“When the court case occurred, it actually had a serious physical effect on Bob – he’s an elderly man,” he says. “We were really concerned about his health.”
The family’s gruelling and expensive court case highlights the pains of investigating and prosecuting art crime in Australia. There is currently not one police person in this country responsible for art crime, there is no effective database recording stolen art, and few art crimes have been successfully prosecuted.
But plans are afoot to establish Australia’s art crime committee. Spearheaded by Pamela James, an art historian at the University of Western Sydney and the NSW crime squad, the committee will include representatives from the Fraud and Cybercrime Squad, the insurance industry, a criminologist, as well as Nall.
“We don’t have a good enough system to support either artists or victims of this type of crime but hopefully the new police committee will address that,” says Nall.
Watch: Interview with Pamela James
The NSW police said in a statement that the committee will “enhance its investigative and crime prevention capabilities in the area of art crime” and “follows a number of high-profile investigations relating to art crime, and the identification of a lack of policing expertise in this area in recent years”.
James has been researching art crime for seven years and says it is the most “extraordinary and paradoxical criminal enterprise”, encompassing everything from a drug dealer who steals an art work in the hope of making quick money to sophisticated criminal enterprises involving money laundering.
“Art crime cannot be regarded or put in any simple box – in terms of either supply or demand or the type of criminal that’s involved,” she says.
She hopes that the new committee will see increased “synergetic outcomes in terms of policy and procedure”, which would include a central database for stolen art.
There have been some spectacular art thefts in Australia in recent years.
In 1977, 27 works by Grace Cossington Smith were stolen from the Macquarie Gallery - an entire show – and have never been recovered.
When Frans Van Mieris’ A Cavalier hung in the art gallery of New South Wales, it was the sort of work one could easily miss. Small in size, it was a simple portrait of a young man draped in a 17th century flouncy blouse, sword in hand. But after it’s theft in 2007, the $1.9 million Dutch Masterpiece found a new notoriety: it is now listed as one of the FBI’s top ten art crimes.