Penelope Jackson was clambering over the roof of an old, closed art gallery looking for answers more than 70 years after the crime was committed.

"How did they get in and how did they get out? Because it was obviously in the night, it was winter. I worked out it was raining that night. And when you know the building and the park - it was a very hard building to scale."

The Tauranga-based art historian and author sounds more like a detective and you get the feeling she wouldn't mind being one.

The unsolved theft of Psyche - a 1902 oil painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon - happened overnight on June 21 or in the early morning of June 22, 1942 at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch.

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Staff arrived to find its empty golden frame still in place and used wax matches strewn over the floor. The 90cm by 153cm canvas was gone and was never seen again.

The building had not changed since opening in 1932, so Jackson and two others staged a re-enactment in 2014.

"We climbed all over the roof, went in the roof caveat, because it was kind of a roof caveat within a skylight...it was up and down and ladders and all kinds of things."

What they discovered filled a chapter in her 2016 book Art Thieves, Fakes & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story - one of several projects undertaken since she quit as director and curator of the Tauranga Art Gallery in 2015.

Like a painter might slowly work a canvas, Jackson makes each anecdote and story come alive with colour and detail.

She recounts the gallery roof adventure while sitting comfortably in the breezy lounge of her Otumoetai home.

Jackson, 55, and her husband have been avid art collectors since they married 32 years ago - their house speaks to that.

Their love of art has passed on to their two children - a son and a daughter, both in their 20s. Her daughter is also an art historian.

"We have lively conversations about art," Jackson says.

One painting dominates the room we are in.

It's an alpine scene by Sydney-based New Zealand artist Euan Macleod, a recent commission to tie together the family's two great passions - art and skiing.

Jackson says there is no such thing as too much art in a house. That's abundantly clear as you enter.

"Other people might spend a lot on fancy cars or sporting equipment," she says.

"I think any collection - whether it is a public collection, civic collection, or private collection - has a story. You have a reason for having an artwork. I guess some people buy art as decoration, but I don't."

Penelope Jackson and her husband have been avid art collectors since they married 32 years ago. Photo/George Novak
Penelope Jackson and her husband have been avid art collectors since they married 32 years ago. Photo/George Novak

BORN in Wellington, Jackson lived in 10 houses and went to eight schools by the time she left high school. Her father was in the Air Force.

Moving around doesn't appear to have impacted her studies - she went on to get degrees or diplomas from five different universities.

She was a high school teacher of art history and classical studies for six years before moving into a museum and art gallery context - something she says she had "a hankering" to do.

After moving to Tauranga in the late 90s, she taught art history and history at Waikato University and also worked part time as a curator at the yet-to-be established Tauranga Art Gallery from the end of 2003.

Six years later she became its second director and retained the curator position.

"That was wonderful because really no one had mapped the art history of this region and so it was virgin territory."

The Tauranga Art Gallery opened on Labour Weekend 2007 and on Friday officially celebrated its 10th anniversary. Jackson has written a book about its history for the milestone.

She resigned as director and curator in 2015, saying it was simply time to try something new.

"I had been there 11 years and I believe people shouldn't stay in jobs forever."

Plus, she had mysteries to solve.

ART crime is a fascinating subject. But why?

"For a lot of people it's that it actually happens in the first place. Certainly there was a bit of surprise after my book came out. People said 'I didn't realise there was so much art crime, especially in New Zealand'. I think the level of deceit really alarms people so they're interested in that."

Jackson refers to the two Gottfried Lindauer paintings stolen earlier this year in Auckland as a case in point. She was inundated with questions from journalists as the story grew.

"The concern from the art community is the way they were taken - there were fast vehicles and broken glass involved - and anyone who has seen anyone move works in a public art gallery situation, you'll see you'll have a carpeted trolley and sponges and white gloves. Works that are 113 years old are very vulnerable."

Jackson says when something happens to an artwork as famous as the two Lindauer paintings, people connect with it.

She lists some of the art crime stories in New Zealand that caused public outcry.

The theft of the James Tissot painting from the Auckland Art Gallery in 1998; Colin McCahon's Urewera Mural from the DoC visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana in 1997 and the bronze statue of Pania of the Reef stolen from Napier's foreshore in 2005.

"People follow it with great interest because they kind of feel it belongs to the nation."

There's also the question of motive that tends to captivate people.

"Even if there's a black market, what are you going to do with the work? How are you going to hang it? You can't put it up because someone's going to see it. You only have to have one person who's going to grass you up, so it's very difficult."

It is estimated that art crime is the world's third biggest criminal enterprise behind drugs and arms, but Jackson says the value of art is more complex than that.

"It's about artistic value, emotional value, intrinsic value.

"It's not like gold where it gets weighed and it's worth 'x' amount. It's very difficult to do that with art."

Jackson says the culprits often like the attention their crimes gain.

Like Foxton forger Karl Sim, the first New Zealander to be convicted of art fraud in the mid-1980s.

"For him, he was having a bit of a laugh at the establishment and in the court case he just laughed and said it was a real hoot because you've got these people with white gloves holding up the exhibits and of course he had made them at home, they weren't precious and didn't need white gloves."

She has been keeping a list of all the art crimes that have happened in the past 12 months in New Zealand.

"How long's the list? It's about a dozen. But they're only the ones we know about."

New Zealand needs an art loss register, she says, like in the United Kingdom.

It is something the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, of which Jackson is a founding trustee, is pushing for.

Tauranga-based art historian and author Penelope Jackson in her Otumoetai home. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga-based art historian and author Penelope Jackson in her Otumoetai home. Photo/George Novak

ART crime is happening all over the world. Even in Tauranga.

The Peter Siddell painting was in a private collection in Tauranga and was loaned to the art gallery for an exhibition. The owners paid $7500 for it.

But when gallery staff looked at it, Jackson says, they thought it was too smooth to be true so sent it to the Auckland Art Gallery and put it under UV lights.

It turned out to be a digital print on canvas with some extra brushwork added. The owners were horrified.

As were the elderly couple in Mosgiel in 2008 who had a small Goldie painting stolen during an open home.

"And that same week at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery someone had been through the big book on Goldie and ripped out a few pages, so someone was doing a bit of homework."

Each story Jackson tells is more remarkable than the last.

A big stainless steel, abstract phoenix arising sculpture which disappeared from outside the Epsom Library in 2004 was spotted in an online real estate listing for a house in a small town near Ohakune a decade later.

A New Zealand soldier bought some Italian impressionist works while serving in World War II and sent them back to Dunedin.

After eventually making their way to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery many years later, the paintings were loaned to an Italian gallery only to be seized at the border as they were on a list of artworks lost during the war.

Jackson is enthusiastic when outlining these cases and you get carried along with her. She is not an historian confined to her home-study.

For an exhibition she put on at Waikato Museum last year, An Empty Frame: Art Crimes of New Zealand, she organised to have copies of two paintings made in Dafen, China - "a town of like 8000 copy artists".

"So if you want Van Gogh Sunflowers you can go online and it'll be here in a week. They're good copies. So I sent them digital images of these two works and got them to make copies to the same size.

"Within three weeks the paintings were back at Waikato Museum, they didn't cost a lot and my God they were good."

Visitors to the exhibition had to guess which paintings were authentic and Jackson says the results were fifty-fifty.

She has just been to Perth to curate another exhibition, is off to Queensland for the same reason in December, and is in Wellington this weekend for the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust's annual symposium.

And then there's the Tauranga Arts Festival next weekend, where she will be talking about cases in her book but also other incidents that weren't included and the art crime projects and mysteries she is working on.

Penelope Jackson resigned as director and curator of the Tauranga Art Gallery in 2015, saying it was simply time to try something new. Photo/George Novak
Penelope Jackson resigned as director and curator of the Tauranga Art Gallery in 2015, saying it was simply time to try something new. Photo/George Novak

THAT brings us back to her sounding like a detective.

"You kind of are. It's kind of inherent in being an art historian that you can't just present one side of the story, you've always got to ask more and more questions and that's the thing with art crime, sometimes people do not want to answer," she says.

New Zealand police do not have a specialised art crime unit like some forces overseas but Jackson thinks there might be another option.

She says it would be great to have "a squad" which is called in if there is an art crime, similar to what is done in London.

"It just seems a sensible idea. You might have a group of willing police officers who would like to go and study art history for five years, but actually you've already got people in the community - you've got amazing people who work in dealer galleries, auction houses, public art galleries, or academics. And you could bring them together.

"I'd love to see that happen. That would be great."

She has, after all, already worked on a few unofficial cold cases - like the theft of Psyche in Christchurch.

The empty golden frame of Psyche, a 1902 oil painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon stolen from the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch in 1942. Photo/Supplied.
The empty golden frame of Psyche, a 1902 oil painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon stolen from the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch in 1942. Photo/Supplied.

ON the roof of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Jackson and her two colleagues pretended it was dark and they were walking on unfamiliar terrain.

"It was really a re-enactment to see, was this possible? Even if they rolled up the canvas, how did they hold it? It was just the logistics of it."

They found the thieves or thief could not have broken in and out through a skylight window as has always been thought.

That would involve a 5m jump. Plus the window catches could not open from the inside and none of them had been forced or jimmied - they were still in original nick.

"Then we thought, even if we could get out and you got on the roof, the 8m wall - it was an art deco, kind of classical building. It was completely flush. There's no way, unless you were Spider-Man, that you could have actually scaled it."

Jackson says there were no buildings close by in those days, or trees, and even if you got into the botanical gardens, the spiked gates would have been locked at a certain time.

"We haven't solved the puzzle but we've ruled out some of those options.

"You can't just keep telling the same story just because someone once said 'they probably went out through the skylight' and then it becomes fact. Actually, it's not."

Only a black and white photo of the artwork and its empty frame remain. Psyche is still on the gallery's website - as if it might one day reappear.

"It's still a mystery," Jackson says.

"It would be nice to tie off some of those loose ends."

Penelope Jackson appears at the Tauranga Arts Festival on Sunday, October 22 at 11.30am in the Carrus Crystal Palace on The Strand. Tickets from Baycourt or Ticketek.