The Art of the Heist


Credits: Suzette, Raymond McIntyre (1879-1933), Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu; presented by Mrs. M Good, London, 1975. Oil on panel. 75/57.

Suzette, Raymond McIntyre (1879-1933)

The Secret History of an Unstolen Painting

Three decades later, the story of the little painting stolen from the Robert McDougall Gallery can be told; how the artist thieves ripped the painting off the wall, how the curators of an International Exhibit deceived the thieves, and how the painting was returned to the Gallery in Christchurch. The story illustrates three major concerns: (i) curatorial responsibility, to the artist, the institution and the culture; (ii) freedom to choose, for the artist, the curator and the audience; and (iii) the dynamics of censorship and power, who decides who can or cannot see what, and why.

The Artist as Culture Thief

Andrew Drummond and I had been appointed Visual Arts Directors for the N.Z. Students Arts Festival, part time positions that would last three months, through the conclusion of the Festival in Wellington August 20 – 27, 1977. I worked full time at The National Art Gallery (NAG) as Exhibitions Officer (a rather odd title – not Exhibitions Curator as the rest of the art world named the position). The title was further distorted on my home mortgage, when the Bank named me ‘Exhibitionist Officer’, a title I would have to live up to. Andrew was the Education Officer, a position previously held by Ian Hunter who was on educational leave at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. We were appointed as a team, an egoless joint mind that could accomplish something like 24 to 30 man hours a day between the two of us, with a little help from our meager NAG resources. At the time my annual exhibitions budget was under NZ$7,000, so most of our resources were begged, borrowed or nicked.

Our Director, Melvin Day, gave his approval for our temporary positions, thinking out of sight, out of mind. If we did anything mischievous, it would not be his fault, because it was outside the NAG. He liked to be called Pat and our job was to make him look good while also challenging just about everything he stood for. Pat was a solid Art History scholar, a product of the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London and a relic of a wonderful but bygone era; the gentleman art history scholar who wore perfect hand tied bowties and told charming and witty anecdotes. In the tiny but brutally politicized world of art politics in Wellington, he was ill served by his many masters, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Academy of Fine Arts and the NAG Council. He also, and this is where I really sympathize with him, had to deal with us, Andrew and Nick, the terrible duo.

The Director of the Students Arts Festival, John Davis, provided us enough funding, but more importantly gave us freedom to do anything we wanted. All we had to do was present him with our plans, which he officially approved. There were no politically motivated Council meetings, no intrusive review committees, no endless “cover your arse” reports, just a couple of casual meetings where our enthusiastic plans were laid out in general terms and received nods of approval from the Director. How simple and elegant and how unlike the real art world. Yet the Student Arts Festival was a huge success. Everything took place as planned and large numbers of students and citizens showed up to enjoy the events.

Freedom to choose

We organized several main events and exhibitions:

A Video Store where students would be able to borrow video equipment and record as much videotape as they could use. The results of their taping would be shown at the Store. Gray Nichols and other performance artists performed here as well.

We used the Wellington Settlement Gallery on Willis Street for a series of performances and installations from Art Students. Bruce Barber had a performance there as did Brian McNeil and we were treated to a Neville Purvis Lecture, an illustrated talk on modern New Zealand art. (Neville Purvis was the Kiwi everyman comic persona of Arthur Baysting.)

Elva Bett Gallery hosted a photo/documentary exhibition called Closed Coal Camp Island by Yuji Saiga at her gallery on Cuba St.

The national student show, called the ‘A4 Show’ and subtitled ‘Out Of The Package – Onto The Wall’ was an open invitational show with a set format, A4, the paper size, 210 by 297 mm or about 8 inches by 10 inches. We advertised the show to University students throughout New Zealand.

An international postal participation event open to NZ and overseas artists called the Sign/Symbol Show was added to the student A4 Show and grew to be the biggest art event of the Festival. We accepted any work as long as it conformed to the correct dimensions. There would be no curatorial selection and no censorship.

I had previously organized an exhibition called ART IN THE MAIL* that was launched in Manawatu Art Gallery by Luit Beiringa in 1976 (after 18 months preparation) and went on to tour 10 major galleries in New Zealand, with Arts Council funding. It turned out to be a popular contemporary art show, which probably upset more so called serious art critics than it did the Patricia Bartletts** of the nation; the arbiters of good taste and decency.


Andrew and I designed a mailing to go out to every University in NZ and a large list of national and international artists. We booked a well-known art space, the Wellington Settlement Gallery on Willis Street for the show.

The worldwide response, due in part to the earlier and still touring “ART IN THE MAIL” show, was overwhelming. We received so much work; we did not have enough wall space. At least a quarter of the show was pornographic by conservative New Zealand standards and had to be partitioned off or stuck in large plastic binders with lots of big warning signs that had the effect of enticing the art lovers to pour over them. Having Patricia Bartlett denounce the show dramatically boosted the attendance.

One day before the deadline for submissions, we received at the NAG a heavy package addressed to the A4 Show. We opened up the packing and discovered two students from Christchurch had submitted a custom made padlocked and sealed metal box with instructions that it be unlocked at the show’s opening where they would be present to provide a key. The box was 8 inches by 10 inches. We had to show the work as it fulfilled the requirements for entry. What the two students did not know was that I had received a letter from Brian Muir, the director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, who had discretely informed galleries and dealers that a valuable early 20th Century oil painting had been stolen recently. The painting’s dimensions were, in those pre-metric times, 7″ x 9″. Could this be the painting?

Here was a curator’s dilemma; do I respect the wishes of the exhibiting artists or the ethics of a professional curator? Do I help an embarrassed director who could lose his job over the theft, or do I further the artwork of two art students who could be charged with theft? What would the painter have thought? I could not ask him, he was dead. Would he have been amused or would he have been outraged? I imagined the artist, Raymond McIntyre, would have thought the heist a hilarious prank, a kick in the pants to a small conservative art scene he had escaped from to arrive in England in 1909. He would have admired the craftsmanship, the precise welding of the metal box that snuggly fitted around his painting, and the daring of the heist. Andrew and I talked about the issues involved and we agreed on a plan.

I called a locksmith to come after hours, to the back entrance of the NAG. It took him one minute to pick the lock. When he left, Andrew and I carefully lifted the lid of the box. Inside, safely wrapped in bubble, was the stolen painting, beautiful miniature oil by a leading ex-patriot New Zealand artist, Raymond McIntyre (1879- 1933), “Suzette”. We both let out a soft whistle at the art and the woman we held in our hands. Here was a beautiful painting and as far as our fledgling European based art history was concerned, priceless. The piece captured a young woman in a black hat, leaning on a table, her right pinkie in between her sensual lips, her eyes gazing down in a pensive but evocative haze. If you saw her at a bar in London or Paris, you would know she was trouble and now, seventy years later at the National Art Gallery in Wellington, she was our trouble. Behind the hardwood, was an envelope. Inside were a series of Polaroids that told the story of the little oil painting; the painting on the gallery wall, the painting lifted off the wall by a male student dressed in a trench coat, dark glasses and a fedora, the space on the wall where the painting once hung, now a lighter shade of paint, the student walking out of the room in the gallery with the painting under his coat. There was even a Polaroid showing a hand removing the label from the wall. A nice touch and very cheeky. We admired the students’ audacity and style. They had “nicked” a beautiful woman. I couldn’t fault their taste.

From Brian Muir’s letter we knew he had not known the painting was missing until after lunch when he had casually taken an inventory of the works on display. The security guards, who were supposed to keep an eye on the paintings, had not noticed the small dark empty rectangle on the wall, the 8” x 10” negative space. The theft had not been made public.

That night we took the painting to the gallery photographer and had him produce an exact color duplicate. He matched the colors and printed the photograph on paper that closely resembled the texture of the painting and mounted it on a similar piece of hardboard. I encased the new work back in the bubble, sealed the box and squeezed the padlock shut. We had our exhibit safe and sound for the A4 Show.

I called the director, the next morning and he took the next flight up to Wellington. As part of our deal, Brian Muir promised not to prosecute the two students and not to display the painting until after the A4 Show closed. He could not have been more grateful or more amused by the strange series of events.

The Opening

The two art students from Christchurch came to the opening of the exhibit with the key. I took the key from them and walked to the back of the gallery where the box opening ceremony was to take place. The metal box was on a small painter’s easel. Andrew operated a large video camera on a tripod to record the event. We had set up the gallery so that the two students were kept at a distance from the easel. People were still trying to get in through the front door but the gallery was packed.

With a dramatic flourish more in keeping with P.T. Barnum than a serious art curator, after all I was legally classified as ‘Occupation: Exhibitionist’, I unlocked the box and carefully held up the painting. From where the two art students stood, they could not see that the painting was a photograph. Initially, they did not realize what had happened. Once I launched into my “Art Rat” speech***, they looked at each other and nodded. It was what they had expected. Not even in the art world do things appear as they should. The thieves had become victims of a switch. The heisters had been heisted. Suzette gazed out into the crowd, nonchalant at being a reproduction, she still looked original.

We all had good intentions and these intentions were layered in innocence. They had wanted to make a statement about a painting from a previous generation displayed in a museum setting, as well as demonstrate how easy it was to steal a framed artwork from a respectable museum; the theft of a painting as performance art. They submitted a “Readymade” artwork for the A4 Show together with a visual narrative of their heist. I had returned the original to its rightful place, but had added to the performance, and the students’ intentions by initially fooling them about the status of “their work”. The deception was carried out with a straight face and no explanation, despite our promise to all participating artists that all works submitted would be displayed.

The students had not stolen the painting for capital gain. They planned, they told me later, to return it to the museum. The repatriation of the artwork would have been another performance and part of their graduate thesis. The painting, though, had now become part of a larger, extended artwork that was, until the exposure of the counterfeit, open-ended. Yes, they did get the photographic reproduction back at the end of the exhibit, even though by entering, they had agreed all works would remain the property of the Students Arts Festival. How they planned to escape prosecution for theft remained vague. They had sent a sealed letter to their lecturer at Ilam, Tom Taylor, to be opened in the event of their arrest, but their ‘intent’ to engage the painting in an extended performance piece would have been lost on the magistrate presiding over the case. Instead, they graduated from art school with honors.

The Artist as thief, the curator as trickster

How had we maneuvered out of such a tricky situation? How could we be loyal to our principles, protect the artist and the art institution and not screw up the artwork? How could we turn the event into one of opportunity, with a sense of humor? Andrew and I reviewed the situation at lunch the next day where we analyzed what actually happened with the stolen painting. The students were saved from arrest, the museum kept the theft quiet avoiding a scandal, the director’s career was intact, and the piece lived on, at least in spirit, in the A4 Show. The perfect color reproduction of the painting and the Polaroid photos, discretely mounted next to the open metal box, told a fascinating story. And seeing the painting in such a raw and anarchic context gave the image a different resonance, a powerful new reference, especially as the photograph perfectly mimicked the actual oil painting.

The show was a big success as hundreds of people came every day to pour over all the art, probably looking for the obscene material. We had a huge sign at the entrance to the show.


This Art exhibit contains material

that some people might find obscene,

objectionable and in poor taste!

 The sign lured them in and was a variation on the sign that had hung outside my

“Art in the Hands of Capitalism” piece in Australia. The sign worked even better in New

Zealand. In a land of censorship, even the promise of pornography sells.

The video of the opening of the metal case and my Art Rat speech was shown at the Video Store. Andrew and I had persuaded the owner of 250 Lambton Quay (formerly Barton Silks) to lend us the store for a couple of weeks. The “Video Store” was temporarily crammed with borrowed video equipment, cameras, tape decks and monitors. We talked three video companies into allowing us unrestricted use of their video equipment. They all said; “That’s great, hardly anyone uses the equipment. It was so expensive, go ahead and enjoy yourself”. Only black and white reel-to-reel SONY ½” videotape was available back then, the separate video recorder was heavy and the separate camera was bulky. The equipment was expensive, poor in quality and heavy to carry around. We were in complete innocence as to video’s eventual ability to transform the way we recorded and viewed the world.

We showed videotapes, installations and performances at the downtown storefront where, because of the store’s location, we had a lot of pedestrian traffic. We arranged for students to look after everything and not one tape or piece of equipment was stolen or mislaid, despite our liberal lending policy. Any student could come in and use the equipment and take it out into the streets for videotaping. Several outstanding students, who went on to work at NAG, helped us.

One potential sponsor whom we almost won over was the Police, sort of one Government Agency (we were administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs) talking to another, the Police Department. The Wellington Police initially agreed to lend us their huge collection of video equipment. In anticipation of a wave of anti apartheid demonstrations, and the planned South African Rugby tour of New Zealand, the Police had bought the latest cameras and powerful telephoto lenses to record and identify the protesting students. That these same longhaired students would use the surveillance gear out of our Video Store, for art’s sake, or maybe for spying on the Police, was a frightening irony someone in the Police Department finally figured out. After a couple of friendly meetings with uniformed bureaucrats at the Central Police Station, we were told without any explanation, that the deal was off. There went all the good will we wanted to build with our brothers in blue. Fear and paranoia ruled. The coming technological revolution, where everyone would have access to cheap, portable video camcorders and a more open society it would supposedly generate was still a couple of decades away.

The visits to the Police Headquarters were not in vein. Here was an alternate world, where the Police defined their own reality, like artists, only their version of reality was the legally binding one. Regardless of their artistic sensibility, they could lock you up or commit you to an insane asylum. Whereas an artist could only drive someone they loved to an insane asylum. In one office there were Polaroids of criminals pinned around a big map of New Zealand. Similarly, in my office, I had Polaroid portraits of artists stuck around a map of New Zealand. In a country of a little over 3 million, they knew where every criminal was. Yes, I did know where all the artists were hiding as well. There was no escape. We lived in an Orwellian world, where Big Brother knew what you were going to do, before you did it. Then there were the cannabis pot plants in various stages of maturity on windowsills throughout the police station. There must have been hundreds of them. I walked slowly past every office trying to count the plants. I dared not ask what they were doing with these specimens. There the similarity with my office ended. I had no pot plants.

High-risk performance art

The Art in the Mail show as well as the A4 and Sign Symbol show raised a series of issues regarding censorship and power. Who has the right to choose what we officially call our culture, our art? Who decides what is good and what is worth keeping? Should the government dictate what we can see? What we can think? How we should react? Or should the public be free to form their own opinions, without the deliberate cultural filtering of an expert group, a self appointed class of curators? For all the self-indulgent neo-dada collages in the Sign/Symbol Show, there were intriguing works, including the political drawings, manifestoes and collages from artists in South America and behind the Iron Curtain. One drawing still haunts me, a design for a solo prison cell at sea, a lone figure suspended on the ocean. Shortly after submitting this piece, the artist disappeared, one of the thousands of students and artists who were killed by the South American military death squads in the 1970’s.

Not all art involves life and death, or deception and theft, but there are principles of conduct for the artist, curator and audience regarding the artwork and its place in our culture. The story of the stolen painting that was stolen back to its rightful owner provides a unique illustration of the conflicts and challenges curators and artists have to deal with. Only with honesty and openness can these issues be debated and resolved.

Nick Spill