Two years since a pair of Gottfried Lindauer Māori portraits valued at almost $1 million were stolen in a ram-raid burglary, Kim Knight revels the mysteries within the mystery.

In the movie version, there is a secret room behind the oak-panelled study. Charlize or Scarlett or Catherine wears black eyeliner and even blacker Lycra. Art crime is sexy. Art crime is elegant.

Very early on April 1, 2017, a stolen Ford Courier ute drives up Auckland's Parnell Rd and stops outside the International Art Centre. Bang! The vehicle reverses into the plate glass window. Bang! The driver slams the accelerator for a second hit. Glass shatters. Two men run to the window. They load two large canvases into the back seat of an almost brand new white Holden Commodore and they drive off.

It takes just under 40 seconds to steal almost $1m worth of art. It is not elegant. It is not sexy. It is hard, fast, brutal. And what happened next is still a complete mystery.

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Two years since the ram-raid burglary of two Gottfried Lindauer oil paintings, police have made no arrests. The art is still missing and the art world is still speculating. Canvas has spent the last month interviewing key players. The International Art Centre's Richard Thomson has spoken extensively for the first time since the morning he responded to a security alarm call-out and found a giant hole in the side of his gallery. We've viewed unreleased video footage of the crime, tracked the paintings to an exhibition alongside work by New Zealand's most notorious Māori art activist and spoken to the famous photographer who remembers the stolen Lindauers hanging in the entranceway of his childhood home.

Who stole Chief and Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure? A better question, suggests one art historian, might be who they were. One of the many mysteries of the missing Lindauers is whether the portrait sitters even existed. Other questions: How did the paintings come to be valued at more than twice the previous auction record for a Lindauer? And was there any chance they might be part of a group of fake Lindauers uncovered by art experts in recent times? (Spoiler alert: unlikely.) This is a complicated story. Let's begin on the eve of the second anniversary of the burglary.

Richard Thomson doesn't want to speak to Canvas.

"I don't know what you'd want to ask us. It's kind of beyond us. The insurance has sorted the owner out. It's history now. It's hardly news."

Except it was. And — while the paintings are still missing — is. Eventually, a few days later, Thomson welcomes us into his office.

That's an Evelyn Page on the wall. Garth Tapper. Milan Mrkusich, Don Binney and Nigel Brown. Michael Smither and Colin McCahon.

"It's for sale," says Thomson, because that's his job. "I've spent 33 years of my life around art auctions. I wouldn't say I take it for granted, but I've got used to it."
The Bing Dawe print behind his desk reminds him of when he used to go eeling as a kid. Thomson remembers the day he needed one job and was offered three. He could have been an apprentice bus-builder. Instead, the 16-year-old went to work in an art gallery.

The scene of the crime: Parnell's International Art Centre after the ram raid burglary of two Māori portraits by Gottfried Lindauer. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The scene of the crime: Parnell's International Art Centre after the ram raid burglary of two Māori portraits by Gottfried Lindauer. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The International Art Centre opened for business in 1971. It moved to its current site in 2016. Today, huge picture windows stretch the length of its Parnell Rd frontage. Opposite neighbours include a velvet-curtained cocktail bar with a discreet pineapple door knocker and a strict code of conduct: No flash photography, no hoodies. Once, above the Parnell Baths, there was a Māori pa. In 1841, Pākehā began subdividing Auckland and Parnell became the city's first suburb. The country's chief justice, the attorney-general and the Anglican bishop lived here. Parnell is old. And so is its money.

Gottfried Lindauer was born in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) and migrated to New Zealand in 1874. The country was a work in progress and Lindauer painted its people.

"The majority of Lindauer's subjects were prominent figures in 19th-century life," wrote Rhana Devenport, then-Auckland Art Gallery director, in the book Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand.

"Entrepreneurs and global traders, tour guides and landholders, politicians and diplomats, peacemakers and warriors acting in defiance or defence of colonial government during the hostile New Zealand Wars of the 1860s ...

"These individuals were leading protagonists whose actions and influences determined the rich unfolding of colonial, political, diplomatic, mercantile, linguistic and spiritual life in New Zealand."

When Lindauer died in 1926, the Manawatū Times reported: "He painted from life more people of the Māori race than any other living man ... there is nothing else quite like the striking canvases which perpetuate the features of some of the most famous rangatira and fighting chiefs of the old school."

In recent years, those portraits have become very collectable.

Artist Gottfried Lindauer, circa 1899, aged approximately 60. Photo / Supplied by Auckland Art Gallery
Artist Gottfried Lindauer, circa 1899, aged approximately 60. Photo / Supplied by Auckland Art Gallery

The IAC's April 2017 Important & Rare Art catalogue featured 107 lots with a total base estimate of $1.7m. Lindauer was the headline act. Sandwiched between a Peter McIntyre landscape and a Frances Hodgkins gouache on paper, two double-page spreads were devoted to the Chief and Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure, valued at $350,000-$450,000 each.

The auction was scheduled for a Tuesday. On the Friday before, the Lindauers went into the big picture windows. Thomson can't recall what else was on display. He thinks, maybe, a Peter Siddell "and a few other things ... we were marketing the sale as we normally would. That's what we do. We're selling art."

Less than 24 hours later, the Lindauers were gone. Canvas has learned there were actually two attempts to smash the window. The first used a combination of heat and cold — it looks like a gas torch and cold water. The second used the rear-end of a 1.5 tonne utility truck. The burglars covered their faces. They wore hoodies and caps. The stolen ute was dumped. The white getaway car (reportedly fitted with fake plates and a flashing light) was tracked by CCTV cameras to the southern motorway. And then it — and the Lindauers — disappeared.

The burglary happened around 3.45am. Police arrived quickly. Thomson remembers driving to the Art Centre, thinking it was probably a false alarm.

"I knew something was wrong when the top of Parnell Rd was blocked off."

The first thing he saw? "A big hole in the building."

The first thing he thought: "You go ... 'F***!'"

He says, "I thought we'd have them back by lunchtime. I just thought it might have been some sort of ransom-type thing that wasn't going to work for anyone and they'd be back.
"I actually think someone has made a mistake. It's a very strange thing to steal ... at the moment, they're worthless because they've been stolen and they don't have clear title."

But they are important. They were history even before they made history. The burglary has been ranked as one of the country's biggest ever art crimes and it happened at a moment when Lindauer was having a moment. In 2016, when Auckland Art Gallery mounted The Māori portraits: Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand, some 99,000 people visited. Portraits went on to Europe, where 155,000 people saw them and then San Francisco where, again, they drew big crowds.

"I thought we'd have them back by lunchtime." - Richard Thomson from the International Art Centre on the Gottfried Lindauer portraits stolen in a ram raid two years ago. Photo / Dean Purcell

Who stole the Parnell Lindauers?

"There was talk of them going to Shanghai on the next flight," says Thomson. Interpol was contacted but no lines of investigation eventuated. Police were contacted by at least one clairvoyant. In the absence of facts, there is constant speculation.

Was this — as per the high-profile 1997 theft of Colin McCahon's Urewera mural — an act of protest? Was the burglary motivated by greed or money or revenge? Was it an insurance job? Were the paintings stolen to order for a secret collector? Were the paintings actually Lindauers?

The latter is a conspiracy theory with pedigree. At least two New Zealand auction houses have sold Lindauer paintings that turned out to be fakes.

In 2001, the International Art Centre put up a portrait of Tainui chief Kewene Te Haho. Trust Waikato paid $121,000 for the painting. Eleven years later, artist Peter Ireland raised authenticity issues. The trust called in Victoria University professor and colonial New Zealand art expert Roger Blackley, who also had serious concerns. Subsequent examination by Auckland Art Gallery's principal conservator Sarah Hillary confirmed a skilful forgery. In 2013, when the Alexander Turnbull Library was preparing to purchase a Lindauer portrait from Dunbar Sloane Auctions, Blackley doubted its veracity. The sale went ahead. Two years later, when the $75,900 painting was examined by Hillary, it too was declared a fake.

This week, Hillary told Canvas she has subsequently viewed around eight more alleged Lindauer works, "which appear to be by the same forger. My feeling is they were probably made in the 1960s."

Auckland Art Gallery principal conservator Sarah Hillary. Photo / Supplied
Auckland Art Gallery principal conservator Sarah Hillary. Photo / Supplied

Could the Parnell burglars have taken a pair of fake Lindauers?

Blackley: "I would very much doubt it. I would never authenticate on the basis of a photograph, but generally, if you're dealing with a suspect Lindauer, it's going to be already suspicious in the form of a photograph and those ones look all right."

Hillary: "I did see them. I didn't look at them in detail, but I didn't think they were anything other than a Lindauer. Our suspicions weren't raised."

Thomson: "I never doubted the authenticity of them."

Nobody Canvas spoke to has seen the reverse of the paintings outside of their frames. While the fronts are signed and dated by Lindauer, nobody can confirm whether anything was written on the back of the canvas that might explain who the sitters were and how the portraits got their title. Wairarapa historian Gareth Winter has wondered about Chief and Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure since 2007 when Webb's auction house contacted him about the paintings.

Lindauer was known to record the names of many of his Māori sitters, but Winter says historians could find no reference to this pair from 1884. No living descendants have ever been traced. And Winter, in an email to Canvas, says this is not the first time he's struggled to link the title of a Lindauer painting to an actual person.

"Maybe I am suspicious by nature, but I wonder if any ... were produced by Karl Sim? I would love to see provenance that took them back past the 1970s."

You can't talk about fake art in New Zealand without talking about Sim. He's the country's first convicted art forger, the so-called "loveable rogue" who legally changed his name to Carl Feodor Goldie so he could sign his paintings like the most famous of Lindauer's contemporaries — C.F. Goldie. When Sim died in 2013, TVNZ reported he had copied 62 artists, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Goldie — and Lindauer.

Karl Sim the art forger and
Karl Sim the art forger and "loveable rogue" who changed his name by deed poll to Carl Feoder Goldie. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In the art world, provenance is everything. It's the record of ownership and proof of authenticity.

Auction notes for the stolen Lindauers list their provenance back to a 1972 International Art Centre catalogue. Richard Thomson was unable to find that catalogue for Canvas, but recalled it contained images of the paintings. It was the year Keith Murdoch was kicked off an All Black tour. Writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson died, Auckland Art Gallery held its first Colin McCahon survey exhibition and a Nelson businessman who made his money in movie theatres and Zip water heaters bought those two Lindauers.

Craig Potton — photographer, conservationist and book publisher — remembers the paintings hanging in the entranceway of his childhood home. He describes them as "hyper-real".

Compare a Lindauer, he says, to a Rembrandt. The latter "look like they've got tonnes of time built into them. The person has almost aged between the chin and the forehead while the painting's been going on." The former is a photographic-sharp moment in time.

"It's a realism that jumps at you a bit. It's not a style that I've deeply loved."

Potton was, nevertheless, stunned when he realised he knew the stolen works.

"It's got an extra tinge to it, this theft. Because it's a theft of a theft in some ways. There was a period there where people felt that Lindauer and Goldie demeaned Māori by stealing their images and selling them and making money out of them ... all those questions around art ... Images resound and keep on resounding and these stories make them resound more and, I'll be brutally frank — it probably over-values the images."

One recent attempt to quantify how much the art world is worth pitched 2017 global sales at $63.7 billion but noted, "true transparency is inherently unattainable". In New Zealand, there is no formal record of art sales outside what is reported by auction houses which, last year, turned over some $27m worth of art.

The current auction record for a Lindauer appears to be AU$305,000, set in March last year by Sotheby's in Sydney. When the International Art Centre listed its Lindauers with a top value of $450,000 each, that estimate was more than twice what any Lindauer had ever previously made at auction in this country — and it was six times more than the Potton brothers had received for the same paintings a decade earlier.

How complicated is the art market? Sometimes the buyer is just another seller. John Gow, from Auckland gallery Gow Langsford, says he made "a pretty cheeky offer" when the pair didn't sell at auction in the mid-2000s. Some $84,375 apiece later and he owned the Chief and Chieftainess. And then it all gets a bit hazy. Gow Langsford sells them, but the new vendor doesn't want to hold them for long. Another vendor comes along and he owns a work Gow Langsford is sure it can sell. There's a "sale" but it's also kind of a swap and it is the second vendor who owns the paintings when they are stolen.

Confused? In the middle of all this, there is at least one more attempt to auction the paintings, but nobody is buying. In 2014, they are exhibited at Gow Langsford. The exhibition is titled Māori: Tradition and Object and one of the other artists showing is the carver Te Kaha.

You can't write a story about art crime in New Zealand without referencing Te Kaha and the Urewera mural. In June 1997, he and Laurie Davis stole the Colin McCahon painting (then valued at $1.2m) from the Department of Conservation's Lake Waikaremoana visitor centre.

It was a declaration of protest. Tūhoe activist Tame Iti — who was not involved in the theft — came under the police spotlight. Eventually, he and Te Kaha would become friends with Dame Jenny Gibbs, the Te Papa museum board member appointed art world go-between for the paintings' return. This, too, is a complicated story, but it ends like this: after about a year of negotiations, Gibbs is instructed to drive to a street in suburban One Tree Hill. She is blindfolded and Te Kaha takes the steering wheel. The pair collect the painting and it is driven to the Auckland Art Gallery.

Canvas caught Gibbs at home the day before she set sail for a cruise around the Andaman Islands. Does she think the Lindauer burglary could have been politically motivated?

Gibbs: "I don't know if you've been to any openings of Goldie or Lindauer shows, but they're extremely emotional. Māori don't resent the portraits. Quite the reverse. They touch them, they talk to them, they sing to them ...

"I actually believe it was somebody rather ignorant and stupid, thinking they were getting something they could sell. I don't believe there's any international collector who would be particularly interested and I don't believe there would be any New Zealand collector who would go along with this way of acquiring them."

Tell her that the paintings were once displayed alongside work by Te Kaha and she laughs.

"New Zealand is a tiny country!"

She remembers Tūhoe activists threatening to chop the McCahon into little pieces. Remembers being told it was buried, and so she despatched "rolls and rolls of proper archival protection". Remembers the night she was scheduled to take Rudi Fuchs, then-director of prestigious Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, to the opera. Te Kaha and Tame Iti were in town, "and I thought I'll take them along too". The opera was Macbeth. "All about the tribes," says Gibbs. "We had an interesting evening."

In this story, the painting is returned and Tūhoe grievances receive national attention. Art theft, says Gibbs, fascinates us "because the motivation is not necessarily straightforward".

One of the vehicles sought by police after the ram raid. Photo / Supplied
One of the vehicles sought by police after the ram raid. Photo / Supplied

Seven months after the Parnell burglary, American magazine Wired reported a "dark web" auction for Chief Ngatai-Raure that invited bitcoin bids on the "top secret" stolen original. The listing was exposed as a scam — but you can still buy a version of the stolen Lindauers online.

Canvas found one art copy site offering a "museum-quality hand-painted oil reproduction" of the Chief and Chieftainess for $160 (buy today, use the code Nice47, and get a 10 per cent discount!).

We emailed the site from a private account. "Thank you for your interest in our service," wrote Matt, advising it would take three weeks to complete the painting. Once we'd approved a photograph it would be rolled and shipped within 7-10 days. "As we know, you perhaps need to pay some charges for the Custom ..."

It's easy to forget that when art is put up for auction, it's because the owner doesn't want it anymore. The value of a painting is created by a buyer — not the seller. Canvas investigations included a deep dive into National Library's digital archive, PapersPast. We did find an 1884 reference to the sale of two large oil paintings "a Māori chief and his wife by the Austrian artist, Herr Lindauer, who visited Auckland several years ago".

The portraits were on display in a Queen St shop. Francis J. Shortt (who would be declared bankrupt two years later) was a hairdresser with a side business in Art Union Lotteries.

Was his "Māori chief and his wife" the same pair stolen in Parnell more than a century later? If it was, someone got a bargain. Shortt, who advised he had paid £100 for the pair, raffled them at one shilling a ticket. The winner, announced in July 1884, was Mrs Jonson, with ticket number 1680.

There is, unquestionably, renewed interest in paintings by Lindauer (witness the numbers who went through the Auckland Art Gallery show) but perhaps one of the oddest outcomes of the burglary was just how good it was for the business of selling Lindauers.

"I didn't foresee that," admits Thomson.

A year before the burglary, the International Art Centre had made a New Zealand auction sale record for a work by Goldie.

"We thought it was time to bring Lindauer into the record books," says Thomson. And so the Centre set about marketing the Chief and Chieftainess.

"There were two of them, so you could market the pair ... I don't want to sound like a philistine, but they become a commodity, just like a McCahon or a Goldie. They were something we could market heavily."

Thomson told Canvas there had been definite interest in the paintings. "They were well on their way to selling ... there is growing awareness of these cultural assets, and how valuable and important they are to New Zealand's history."

And, a year after the burglary, the International Art Centre did get the New Zealand record it was looking for, selling a single Lindauer for $245,000.

"Out of the ashes came good," says Thomson. "It pulled a few paintings out of the woodwork we probably wouldn't have normally sold because people realised they had things of value."

Still, he says, "If I could wind back the clock, I'd rather it hadn't happened."

Canvas understands one official estimate had valued the paintings at $200,000 each. Insurance has been paid out, but no details released. Thomson will not say who owned the Lindauers when they were stolen. Life, for everybody involved, appears to have moved on.

Would the paintings have ever fetched top dollar? Has someone been secretly negotiating their return for the past two years? Will they turn up one day as a criminal bargaining chip? Have they been destroyed? Taken out of the country? Put on a wall in the last place anyone would expect?

"I would love the police to ring me one day and say they're sitting in a storage thing at the bottom of Parnell Rd. Or they're sitting in a bach right down the back of Taupo or something," says Thomson.

He says he thought the next time he'd be talking about these paintings would be when they were found. And he'd still like to do that. Thomson — and many others Canvas spoke to — hope that one day, the Lindauers might just get dropped off anonymously outside the Auckland Art Gallery.

"Find the paintings." - Detective Inspector Scott Beard. Photo / Nick Reed

The last person we speak to about the burglary is Detective Inspector Scott Beard. He says there's every hope the paintings may one day be recovered.

"Friendships and loyalties change over a period of time for various reasons, particularly within the criminal community ... It only takes one phone call."

The Lindauer burglary file remains open. Information occasionally trickles in. But so do new cases. Beard was, most recently, the police face of the Grace Millane homicide investigation.

"The key there — find Grace ... that theme never changed. It's the same here. There's been a burglary, the paintings are gone, they're of national significance — find the paintings. Because that will lead on, hopefully, to who the offenders are."

Do you know anything about the stolen Lindauers? Call Crimestoppers NZ anonymously on 0800 555 111 or email kim.knight@nzme.co.nz