Two paintings by Gottfried Lindauer, valued around $490,000 US ($800,000 NZD) that were stolen in 2017 were returned to police through a secretive deal arranged by senior gang members, the New Zealand Herald reported Wednesday.
The Māori portraits, Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure, were painted by the Czech-New Zealand artist in 1884. The art works were stolen from the International Art Centre gallery and auction house in a “smash-and-grab” incident in April 2017, only a few days before they were to be sold.
The thieves reversed a stolen van into the front window of the gallery and auction house before loading the two paintings into a white Holden Commodore SSV sedan.
The paintings were two examples of Lindauer’s prolific portrait work featuring Māori subjects, ranging from leaders to ordinary people. In March, an auction for a portrait of Harawira Te Mahikai, chief of the Ngāti Kahungunu Tribe, sold for nearly $615,000 US including fees ($1,009,008 NZD).
Last December, New Zealand police announced that Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure had been returned with only minor damage. According to the Herald, police were “deliberately vague” in providing details on what happened to the portraits, referring only to “an intermediary who sought to return the paintings on behalf of others” to the artworks’ owners.
“To me this is a good news story,” Detective Inspector Scott Beard said at a press conference in December. “You get involved in investigations, you want to resolve them, you want to solve them. The cultural significance and value of these paintings, we never gave up hope. And now we’ve had them returned.”
“We’re still looking for people to come with information that can assist us solving who did the burglary and who stole these [paintings].”
On June 7, the Herald reported the return of the two stolen Lindauer portraits was made through an agreement with two senior criminal figures, but “wide-ranging suppression orders” made by the country’s Court of Appeal will permanently suppress their identities. “Strict non-publication orders” also prevent the reporting and public disclosure of how the Lindauer paintings were safely returned to police.
“The gang members are currently serving long periods of imprisonment but their criminal offending cannot be reported without breaching the suppression orders,” reported the Herald‘s investigative journalist Jared Savage. “There is no suggestion either of the two gang members was involved in the theft of the paintings, rather that they were able to use their standing in the criminal world to obtain access to something the police wanted.”
When Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure were returned to police, there was fingerprint and DNA testing done. However, no charges have been laid.