The audacious Auckland art heist where ram-raiders stole two rare paintings last month was more sophisticated than police have let on and criminal underworld figures could now be holding them to ransom.
While police continue to hunt for the missing million-dollar Lindauers, with officers looking at suspects, the Herald can reveal aspects of the heist for the first time.
It's understood that two brazen raiders sprayed the window of Parnell's International Art Centre with a substance - designed to freeze or weaken the glass - before reversing a stolen Ford Courier ute into it about 4am on April 1.
However, police have confirmed that the first ramming didn't sufficiently break the gallery's thick window.
The robbers then rammed the ute into the windows for a second time, possibly damaging the highly-valuable artworks crafted in 1884 by celebrated Czech-born artist Gottfried Lindauer.
High-definition CCTV footage captures a white 2016 Holden Commodore SSV6 driven by a third man arriving at the scene shortly afterwards.
But what public-released surveillance images don't show is that the criminals placed a flashing light on the Commodore's roof, designed to look like undercover police had the situation under control.
The number plate on the getaway car also appears to be fake.
The ute was found ditched around the corner from the Parnell Rd gallery - and not left in the gallery window as earlier reported.
Detective Inspector Scott Beard refused to comment on the tactics employed, citing "operational reasons".
Asked if there were any suspects, he said: "We have a list of people we are working through."
It's understood the spray used on the glass has been forensically examined by police experts.
Beard admitted it was possible the paintings - which had been expected to collectively fetch up to $1m when they went under the hammer at auction days later - were damaged in the raid.
While border alerts remain in place, and the global art community has been informed via Interpol, police believe the paintings are still in New Zealand.
But just who is behind the smash-and-grab has the rumour mill working overtime in Auckland art circles.
Suggestions that activists, politically-motivated or otherwise, or collectors could be involved abound.
So does word that gangs or organised crime have masterminded the theft of the two portraits of Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure.
"Police are keeping an open mind as to who may have been involved," Beard said.
The break-in reminds leading criminologist Greg Newbold of the Waiouru Army Museum war medals theft where career criminal Ronald van Wakeren stole them to negotiate more lenient sentences for other crimes.
He's heard of criminals saying to police they will give the location of a dead body if their charges are dropped or moderated.
"The first thing that came to my mind when those paintings went missing was that they would be difficult to dispose of," said Newbold, professor of criminology at Canterbury University.
"It could be that someone has got these very expensive [Lindauer] paintings in storage as a useful bargaining tool.
"Say you're involved in a criminal enterprise, importing methamphetamine say, having the Lindauer paintings would be a pretty good bargaining chip if you're picked up and charged."
Chris Marinello from Art Recovery International in Italy earlier told the Herald there was a possibility a ransom could be demanded for the paintings' return or they could be used to access drugs or weapons, or as leverage in a "get out of jail free card".
A source close to the investigation, called Operation Bower, also believed the artworks had been "kidnapped".
International Art Centre director Richard Thomson wouldn't go into details but told the Herald it was "not a simple ram raid".
"It was a lot more sophisticated than has been recorded," he said.
"We have very high security. Some things you just don't see coming.
"It's a dark day in New Zealand art history."
Newbold agreed that the raid appears to at least have elements of sophistication, despite police saying from the outset that it was unsophisticated.
Beard repeated that view when approached by the Herald this week.
The possibility that the paintings were stolen to order, domestically or internationally for a reclusive collector, or raided by nationalist activists or to hang in a gang pad, make no sense to Newbold.
Police are still appealing for anyone who recognised the men or had information about the crime or where the paintings were contact Auckland City Police on 09 302 6832 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.