Kirsty Wynn

Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

NZ's biggest art heist - culprit out of jail and talking

Anthony Ricardo Sannd. Photo / Supplied
Anthony Ricardo Sannd. Photo / Supplied

The man who pulled off New Zealand's biggest art heist is out of jail and owning up, for the first time, to a life of crime that includes some of this country's most notorious armed robberies - and others for which he was never caught.

Anthony Ricardo Sannd says he stole an $8 million Tissot painting to order in 1998. He tells how he and his accomplices twice met a Hong Kong Chinese businessman, who offered them $800,000 in $100 notes, which he carried in a Route 66 shopping bag.

By then, Sannd was already a hardened robber. He had served time for a 1984 robbery of an Armourguard van outside the Birkenhead Foodtown in which he and his accomplice got away with $294,000 - the biggest robbery the country had then witnessed - and did another stint for a bank robbery in Kerikeri in 1992.

In 1998, his criminal career reached a grim climax when he stormed into Auckland Art Gallery with a handgun and a shotgun, smashing an elderly security guard in the chest as he ploughed through to reach one of the most prized masterpieces in the city's collection, the 1874 work by Frenchman James Tissot titled Still On Top.

He lifted it from the wall, jemmied the canvas from its frame, and ran out to his waiting Honda 1100XX Super Blackbird motorbike, firing his shotgun over the head of a pursuing pedestrian as he sped off. The entire heist was completed in three minutes and 10 seconds.

Eight days later, police received a $500,000 ransom demand. They arrested Sannd in Port Waikato and found the Tissot underneath his bed.

Gallery conservator Sarah Hillary, daughter of the late Sir Edmund Hillary, said the robbery had been a "nightmare". "He was waving a gun and hit the security guard violently," she said.

When the painting was found, Hillary was rushed to Pukekohe police station in a car with lights flashing and sirens blaring. She viewed the "butchered" painting, which had been found rolled up in an old sack. "We were in shock - it had been in perfect condition and there it was with all these jagged cuts in it," she said.

"We brought it into the gallery and over the next few days the police would bring us little packages of more pieces as they found them. It was so brittle but I was able to piece the bits together and use them."

Sannd was sentenced to 16 years and nine months in jail.

Last week, the repentant robber walked free from Rimutaka Prison - and this weekend, he sat down to tell his entire, astonishing life story in an interview with the Herald on Sunday.

In that interview, the 61-year-old Sannd reveals that:

He was the driver in 13 armed robberies in Australia, while living in Sydney as a young man. He was never fingered for any of them.

In 1978 he was hired to helicopter into Cambodia with five armed mercenaries, he claims, to photograph evidence of the Khmer Rouge genocide - a botched mission that he says was funded by the CIA.

On his return to New Zealand, he suffered a nervous breakdown and, after police found him with weapons, he was admitted to Oakley [Psychiatric] Hospital in Auckland where doctors administered electro-convulsive shock therapy.

He says he now wants to tell his story, to set the record straight. But Neil Grimstone, the former police officer who arrested him, is not so sure. "He was old school - quite respectful of authority but still one of those old-time crooks," Grimstone said this weekend. "A crook is a crook and he will always be a crook."

- Herald on Sunday

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