Take Five: Key things to know about art crime in New Zealand

Technology and NFTs offer exciting opportunities for art, but they also provide tools for criminals, warns an expert.

This week Canadian police have begun investigating a robbery of a famous portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, after the original photograph was exchanged for a counterfeit during his 24-year stay in an Ottawa hotel.

But art crime is not unique abroad.

In 2017, two paintings by Gottfried Lindauer were stolen from the Auckland International Art Centre; earlier this year, a historian claimed the Alexander Turnbull Library held a fake painting by Augustus Earle; and a letter purportedly signed by Charles Dickens was withdrawn from auction in 2020 after a collector questioned its legitimacy.

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1. What is the prevalence of artistic crime?

This question is difficult to answer for a number of reasons, including the lack of a centralized registry and a lack of police resources.

A list of crimes against art is kept on the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust website but it is not exhaustive. The site publishes links to reports on artistic crime. So far in 2022, the trust has listed 11 art crime cases.

Some crimes would go unreported for a variety of reasons, including fear of copycat crimes or people not wanting to be seen as stupid for purchasing fraudulent works, said trust president Penelope Jackson.

Penelope Jackson of the NZ Art Crime Research Trust.


Penelope Jackson of the NZ Art Crime Research Trust.

In the event of a fraud, it could be settled between the parties without the story ever reaching the media, Jackson said.

Karl Sim is the only person to be sentenced art forgery in Aotearoa.

2. What are the main types of artistic crimes?

The three main categories are theft, vandalism and fraud.

But each country has its own points of difference. For example, in Australia, since the rise in popularity of contemporary Aboriginal art, there has been a spike in the making and selling of fraudulent Aboriginal art.

Earlier this year Maori lawyer Rangi McLean said a German artist used his tā moko image without his permission.

3. How is this changing?

Technology is advancing the way trained restorers can examine artwork for things like the age of the painting – this is a finite scientific way of telling whether a painting is fraudulent or not.

Technology can also be a tool for finding stolen art – once an image of a missing work is in the media, it’s still there for reference.

Karl Sim is New Zealand's best-known art forger.

David White / Stuff

Karl Sim is New Zealand’s best-known art forger.

More and more people are also buying art online. But that brought its own risks, because viewing artwork online could also mean a loss of nuance for things like texture, Jackson said.

It is easy to buy forging tools from online markets.

And NFTs or non-fungible tokens – a type of digital asset – have their own problems.

They can be used to commit fraud, and some artists have reported finding their works for sale as NFTs in online marketplaces without their permission.

The motivations for art crimes have also changed over time.

With moves like Black Lives Matter, statues of colonizers have been toppled around the world.

New Zealand has also had its fair share of vandalized public art – in 2019 a controversial statue of Captain Cook in Gisborne was moved from Tītīrangi Hill to the Tairāwhiti Museum due to vandalism and divided public opinion.

This statue of Captain Cook in Gisborne has divided public opinion and was removed after being repeatedly vandalized.

iStock Images

This statue of Captain Cook in Gisborne has divided public opinion and was removed after being repeatedly vandalized.

4. How can people prevent artistic crime?

Art collectors should keep good pictures and catalogs of their artwork, including sales receipts, Jackson said.

People should ask questions when buying art on the secondary market, especially about the provenance of a work.

The works must be detailed on the insurance and fixed to the walls.

People should also be aware of the copyright of the images. But Jackson stressed that not all art copies are made for nefarious purposes (think movie props or artists’ education).

5. How is art crime handled?

Police say all property theft reports are handled on a case-by-case basis.

jackson said many artistic crimes have not been solved.

The police do not have a dedicated art crime team, due to a lack of resources.

In the UK, art specialists are called in when a crime is committed. London The Metropolitan Police has its own art and antiques unitwhich investigates fraud, illegal trafficking and theft of works of art.

New Zealand also has no national arts register – as is the case with cars – where people could register works of art and report them stolen to ensure dealers don’t accidentally sell them.

Christopher S. Washington