Over the last 70 years, many paintings by Colin McCahon, New Zealand's most famous artist, have disappeared. Their monetary value can be measured in millions of dollars. David Herkt follows the stories of those that have been lost, some that have been found – and those that are still missing.

New Zealand has its own unsolved art mysteries. Colin McCahon has an international reputation. His eight-panelled painting, The Canoe Tainui, sold for $1,621,620 at auction in 2016, currently the highest price ever paid for a work by a New Zealander. It had originally been purchased for $550 in 1969.

While McCahon's paintings occupy pride of place in Australasian galleries and are eagerly sought by collectors, a number of his works have been lost, mislaid, stolen, and perhaps even deliberately destroyed.

One large canvas may have been folded up and put in the back of a cupboard in a South Auckland school for the blind. Another was last seen on the way to a warehouse after rejection by the commissioning company's management. A British businessman purchased a bulk-lot of 20 as decor for his hotels - but they were never hung.

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Peter Simpson, the Auckland academic and art-writer, is currently working on a comprehensively-illustrated book about McCahon to be released by the Auckland University Press to coincide with the artist's centenary in 2019. It will be the first history of McCahon's artistic life to be produced since 1984.

Art critic Peter Simpson with curator Dorothy Laing in front of a Colin McCahon painting On The Road. / Photo: NZ Herald
Art critic Peter Simpson with curator Dorothy Laing in front of a Colin McCahon painting On The Road. / Photo: NZ Herald

"I sometimes describe it as 'the biography of his career'," Simpson says. "It is organised chronologically and puts the emphasis on the work rather than the man."

In his research, Simpson has turned detective to investigate some of the more mysterious disappearances of McCahon's paintings.

One of the more intriguing is the large International Air Race painting. It had been commissioned by TEAL, the precursor to Air New Zealand, in 1952. It showed a small military jet and an airliner flying above the Canterbury Plains.

One contemporary viewer found it "startling" and "powerful". Author Gordon Brown wrote: "The intervening cloud layer and cool colours introduced into the painting help to convey a sense of altitude." Simpson himself describes the work as "the climax of McCahon's studies of the Canterbury landscape".

However, the management of the state-owned airline were apparently disturbed by the "factual inaccuracy of the aircraft's shapes".

It was exhibited in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. While it was promised to the Auckland Art Gallery, it went instead into storage. Then it seems to have been shipped to Wellington, where it disappeared.

One story even suggests that it was eventually broken up and the hardboard backing was used in a more "practical" way, as a shipping container.

Ben Plumbly of Art + Object, the auction house that has realised some of McCahon's highest prices, has experienced ideas about the value of art works.

"A painting really is worth as much as someone is prepared to pay," he says. "There is no inherent or intrinsic value. The price of paint on canvas or paint on board is a mere few cents. We grant it this value. We bring it this value.

"And it can be quite difficult to quantify what that value is. Hence why a lot of people sell their paintings through auction to find out what the market is prepared to pay. What I do in my job is attempt to shed my personal subjectivity and put myself in the position of someone who has a lot of money and might want to buy a painting.

"My gut feeling is that International Air Race could be worth anywhere between $800,000 and $1.2 million."

Whether the painting still exists is anyone's guess, but there are other missing McCahons and other stories.

On June 5, 1997, burglar alarms went off at the remote Āniwaniwa Visitor's Centre on Lake Waikaremoana in the Urewera National Park. McCahon's large canvas, Urewera Mural from 1975 had been stolen. It had been hung simply as the artist intended, tacked along its top edge to a board.

Police roadblocks were quickly set up on the one gravel road in and out of the Ureweras. A car and a van were stopped. In the van, there was a driver with a moko, and a teenage boy sleeping on a mattress in the back. After a cursory search, the police waved it on.

The car was later found burnt-out. The painting remained missing for another 18 months.

Colin McCahon - Urewera Mural. / Photo: New Zealand Herald Photograph by Getty Images
Colin McCahon - Urewera Mural. / Photo: New Zealand Herald Photograph by Getty Images

Suspicion had fallen on Te Kaha, a young Tūhoe activist, but police could not prove their case. A few months later, Jenny Gibbs, the art-collecting ex-wife of wealthy businessman and entrepreneur Alan Gibbs, took an interest in the painting and its recovery.

Gibbs would not be party to any ransom nor is it clear if she was ever asked for one. It is known that she met Te Kaha repeatedly including at her home in Paratai Drive, Auckland. Te Kaha's fellow Tūhoe activist, Tame Iti, may have become an intermediary. Gibbs provided a large roll of bubble-wrap and tape in case the painting was recovered.

There were a number of false starts until finally Gibbs was driven to an unknown Auckland destination with her hands over her eyes. When she finally opened them, the painting was in the back of the car. It was taken to the Auckland Art Gallery and the damage from creasing and folding assessed.

Te Kaha was charged with burglary and, while he was on bail, both he and Gibbs travelled to France together, exciting much media comment. He was judged guilty and sentenced to 200 hours of community service with $15,000 costs and reparation.

While focus has remained on the Urewera Mural, McCahon had actually completed three large Urewera paintings. The location of the third still remains unknown.

Simpson has a letter where McCahon describes the lost work as "wild", completed when the concept was settling in his mind. The artist also ventures the thought that it might have been the most successful of Urewera paintings.

He writes that he had met a young woman who seemed to know its location, rolled up in the back of a cupboard. He speculates whether it was at Homai College for the Blind in Manurewa, because he had once lent it to them.

"It is interesting how often in the discussion around missing McCahons, Homai College for the Blind pops up," Plumbly remarks wryly.

"You are talking about two and a half metres in length. Not the kind of painting that passes through the market very often. I'd say $1.5 million. Sometimes McCahon's sketches are like fully realised works. Sometimes they are even better."

One of the most extensive and valuable collections of "missing" McCahon paintings were once owned by a British hotelier, Edward Danziger, Simpson says.

Danziger had been a movie producer (with his brother Harry) of more than 70 B-grade film-thrillers. "The Danzigers were not in the business for art; they were in the business for business," wrote British film historians, Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane.

In the early 1960s, the brothers moved into hotel development and, on a visit to New Zealand, Edward purchased 20 McCahon paintings from the Ikon Gallery in Auckland for £300 in June and July 1963, for use as decor.

In the light of later prices, it could be considered as one of the bargains of the century.
The paintings, however, were never used and disappeared from sight.

New Zealand art-collectors and writers Jim and Mary Barr have written about the missing paintings from the Danziger purchase, including one that mysteriously turned up on American auction-site, eBay, in 2006 – with no reserve.

A final bid of US$4500 was posted but the vendor (quicksellit-westpalmbeachfl) did not give up the painting. It was McCahon's The Second Bellini Madonna of 1961 from the Danziger cache. It was never shipped to its winning bidder and is now in the Auckland Art Gallery, presented as a gift by the Friedlander Foundation in 2016.

"It is really McCahon looking for a way to introduce three dimensions into a two-dimensional painterly surface," comments Plumbly. "They are particularly striking and strong works. I would think it would be worth between four and five hundred thousand dollars."

The steps of the painting's journey from eBay to the Auckland Art Gallery still remain unknown.

It is clear, however, that Martin Browne, the New Zealand-born Sydney gallerist, co-author of Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, and former futures-trader, played a role in the sale and recovery of many of the Danziger paintings.

In 2012,the Barrs wrote that Browne had talked with the 81-year-old Danziger in 1990 and located eight of the 20 as a consequence.

"So am far as I concerned, there is one – maybe two – Danziger paintings unaccounted-for," Browne commented in an email response to a question. "The rest I either located and sold myself, saw come back on the market over the past 30 years through other sources, or I - and I'm sure others - know where they are, with the people who own them and who don't want to sell them."

"As for talking about them, or how I tracked the paintings down, I'm sorry but I'm not interested."

Simpson can list other missing McCahons. There are a number from the late 1940s that went astray after an exhibition. Some were probably disposed of because they were returned in bad condition.

"The lost (probably destroyed) crucifixions of 1948-49 were important," Simpson adds, "especially Crucifixion with Magdalene with its six-panel background divided between night and day.

"Then if, as one letter suggests, there was a large French Bay work with aeroplane of 1955, that would be wonderful to see."

A letter from McCahon describes this painting in detail. There was a plane, boats, and a fisherman. The artist was happy with the work and even threw a party on his deck in Titirangi to celebrate its completion – a event that began in the late afternoon and finished after midnight.

The subject matter is very similar to the surviving Manukau 3 painting of the same time.
"It is joyous painting," Plumbly says, "and that is not necessarily an adjective we use a lot when we talk about McCahon. He had quite a joyous time in his life after moving up from the South Island and settling out at Titirangi and really becoming completely absorbed by the local flora and fauna and the local climate.

"I think it could be worth in the vicinity of $250,000."

Simpson has located photographs of gallery walls, illustrations in magazines, and letters, all of which picture, describe and sometimes even sketch paintings by McCahon whose current locations are unknown.

The search for missing works is certainly not complete.