A Goldie painting estimated to be worth more than a million dollars could become "underworld currency" used as a bargaining tool by gangs if it's not recovered, an art crime expert says.
Waikato Police revealed last week the painting titled Sleep 'tis a Gentle Thing, of Ngāti Maru and Ngāti Paoa chief Hori Pokai, by revered New Zealand artist Charles Frederick Goldie, was stolen from a Hamilton East property.
Police arrested three men after executing a search warrant at a Hamilton address on Saturday and recovered stolen property, but not the painting.
Paul Majurey, chair of the Marutūāhu Collective which includes Ngāti Maru and Ngāti Paoa, said Pokai was an "influential leader of chiefly whakapapa".
"It is of great concern this tupuna taonga remains missing.
"While historical ancestral representations can involve issues of authenticity and respect, they are treasured as providing a tangible connection with beloved tupuna."
The works of Goldie, who died in 1947 aged 76, have become some of New Zealand's most valuable artworks.
His most expensive piece, A Noble Relic of a Noble Race, of Ngāti Manawa chief Wharekauri Tahuna, sold for $1,337,687 at an International Art Centre auction in Auckland in 2016.
Director Richard Thomson said he'd sold another version of the stolen painting in 2008 for a then-record of $454,000, and believed this version could be worth "well over a million dollars".
University of Auckland Associate Professor Ngarino Ellis, who specialises in Māori art history and is a founder of the New Zealand Art Crime Trust, said paintings by Goldie, and his contemporary Gottfried Lindauer, were often stolen because they were well-known, attracting chance common thieves along with those specifically targeting them.
In 2000 thieves wrenched Goldie's 1917 painting of Hera Puna from a wall in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Another Goldie painting of Hori Pokai was stolen in 2007, a small canvas portrait, from Auckland University, along with a bible and a set of Colin McCahon manuscripts.
And by far the largest and most-high-profile in recent years was the ram-raid at International Art Centre in Parnell in 2017, where thieves made off with two Lindauer pieces together estimated to be worth up to $900,000.
"There has been a steady flow of thefts in New Zealand," Ellis said.
"We only hear about the high-profile ones, so there are probably a lot more we don't know about."
However, Ellis said in many cases the thieves likely did not understand the paintings would be "virtually impossible" to sell.
"When everyone has heard about it, seen the paintings, you'd have to be pretty stupid to try and sell them on the open market."
Other methods were through the dark web to international buyers, which was suspected at one point following the Lindauer heist but turned out to be a scam.
"Goldie and Lindauer are well-known overseas and so there will be interest, but police have very good people monitoring those facilities so again I think you'd have to be very stupid to even advertise it there."
The idea of "stealing to order" was "a bit of a myth", Ellis said.
"Many of these paintings simply stay missing, and what happens more often is they are stolen for the purpose of being used in organised crime.
"So groups running drugs and guns, the artworks become part and parcel of that and move around different groups.
"They become part of an underground currency, and if there is only one, it becomes a bit of a badge of honour.
"Many top gang bosses, particularly overseas, like to see themselves as very cultured, and so it's not uncommon for some of the major ones to have works of Picasso."
They can also be used as bargaining chips with police.
Following the 2007 Goldie heist, the items were eventually recovered when a recidivist fraudster attempted to use his knowledge of their location as leverage in his sentencing on unrelated charges.
The rise of Goldie
Goldie, whose father was once Auckland mayor, trained in Auckland and Paris, and made his name in highly detailed portraits of Māori.
His paintings' prices have grown enormously, from about $30,000 or $40,000 (converted to 2021 values) for some during his lifetime, to now fetching more than a million dollars.
The Goldie exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1997 attracted what was then considered an enormous number of visitors - more than 66,000 people. Māori were 30 per cent of those visitors, whereas they normally comprised just 3.5 per cent of people going to the gallery.
Herald art critic TJ McNamara wrote at the time of the exhibition that Goldie was "easily the best-known and most-admired painter in the history of art in New Zealand".
While some critics, like McNamara, called his works "conservative" and "lacking originality or invention", Goldie himself was critical of modern art, writing in a Herald article in 1934 that Cubism, Impressionism and several other movements were "cloaks for incompetency".
But, as evidenced by the skyrocketing prices, buyers seem undeterred by these debates.
"There's a mystery and a magic to Goldie that no other New Zealand artist has been able to replicate," said Richard Thomson of the International Art Centre.
"They are national treasures - while people can own them, they really are just guardians; the nation owns them."
Don Hayward, in an article for the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, reports Goldie made at least 10 paintings and drawings of Hori Pokai, the sitter in the stolen painting, between 1905 and 1937.
The stolen painting was likely done during the 1930s.
While Goldie's earlier works tended to fetch the highest prices, the 2016 record was painted in 1941.
The stolen painting was twice sold by Wellington auction house Dunbar Sloane, fetching $123,200 in 2001 and $322,000 in 2012, according to Australian and New Zealand Art Sales Digest records.
Dunbar Sloane Jr told the Herald he believed its current value could be around $1m.
"It was quite a big painting, which puts it in the rarer bracket. But whoever stole it, I wonder what they will ever do with it? They cannot sell it, so either it will go underground or they will realise it will only be a liability and hand it in."
Sloane Jr would not divulge details of the buyer but said he agreed art thefts appeared to be becoming "more of an issue".
Along with thefts, Goldie's works have also been targeted by fraudsters.
In 1984, real estate agent Karl Feodor Sim, who changed his name to Charles F Goldie, was charged with forging "Goldies", and works in the names of other artists.
He was sentenced to community service and fined after his conviction on charges that arose out of the forgery of signatures on sketches, mainly with the signature CF Goldie, and the sale of sketches.
Taonga versus the 'dying race' critique
Goldie and Lindauer paintings of tupuna were "very highly regarded" to Māori, said Ellis, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou.
"Māori regard them as ancestors rather than mere representations. When people die they might have a replica of those works around their coffin, kind of like a photograph."
Consequently stealing these paintings were not like stealing any others.
"There is a lot mamae, pain, now this ancestor has disappeared and we don't when they will return and if they will be hurt. What we do know is that for the person involved there will get their comeuppance."
Goldie has received criticism in recent years for depicting Māori as a "dying race".
"He usually chose older subjects, and portrayed them as disadvantaged, in worn-out clothes, decrepit houses, very much promoting this idea of dying Māori which was very popular at the time," Ellis said.
"Conversely many of Lindauer's works were commissioned from Māori, and portrayed them in everyday clothes, in suits and beautiful dresses, mostly a lot younger than in Goldie's works."
Goldie's paintings also often used generic names, and left out the name and whakapapa of the sitter.
"But today many of his works have been renamed and reconnected with the tupuna, which has given them much more meaning for Māori."
Given how highly the paintings were now regarded, there have been some calls for them to be provided to whānau and iwi, and housed in marae, rather than private homes or museums.
Ellis said every iwi would have a different view on this, and marae were not as secure as public art galleries or museums.
Paul Majurey would not be drawn on the various critiques of how his tupuna was portrayed.
"There are varying schools of thought on the context of Goldie - 'dying race' - and Lindauer - 'vibrant culture' - paintings.
"In any event, they are treasured as providing a tangible connection with beloved tupuna."
Two of the men arrested over the recent theft, aged 45 and 49, appeared in the Hamilton District Court today, jointly charged with burglary.
They were both granted interim name suppression, one was granted bail while the other was remanded in custody until he can find an appropriate residence.
The man on bail entered a not guilty plea and would now reappear in court in March.
The 49-year-old accused was remanded in custody without plea until February 2, however his lawyer indicated an application for bail would likely be made prior to that date.
The third man appeared later and was also granted name suppression, entering a not guilty plea and would also reappear in court in March. The man was granted bail.
Notable New Zealand art heists
• Urewera Mural by Colin McCahon. A work spanning three large panels, stolen in 1997 from the Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre, Lake Waikaremoana, returned 15 months later with Tūhoe identity Tame Iti and arts patron Jenny Gibbs acting as negotiators.
• Still on Top, by James Tissot, stolen in 1999 by lifelong crook Anthony Ricardo Sannd. He demanded a half-a-million-dollar ransom for the return of the painting which was found rolled up under his bed eight days after the robbery. The painting was restored and returned to the Auckland Art Gallery.
• In 2000, thieves wrenched Goldie's 1917 painting of Hera Puna from a wall in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Days after the heist, the painting was given to the police by an art benefactor who said he had bought it for $10,000.
• Pania of the Reef, a 60kg bronze statue stolen from Napier's waterfront in 2005, recovered from a garden shed eight days later and returned to its spot.
• Goldie painting of Hori Pokai stolen in 2007, a small canvas portrait, from Auckland University, along with a bible and a set of Colin McCahon manuscripts. The items were eventually recovered when a recidivist fraudster attempted to use his knowledge of their location as leverage in his sentencing on unrelated charges.
• Ram-raid at International Art Centre in Parnell in 2017, where thieves made off with Lindauer's Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure, painted 134 year ago and together estimated to be worth up to $900,000. The paintings are still unrecovered.
- additional reporting Kim Knight