Stolen art returned to Zim 6 years after
Six artefacts stolen from Zimbabwe’s National Art Gallery are back in the country and already on display after missing for six years following a daring daylight theft by a suspected Polish man in 2006. It was a joyous moment for arts enthusiasts, as they gathered at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for the unveiling of the recovered artefacts.
The gallery’s director, Mrs Doreen Sibanda, says the artefacts comprising four headrests or (mitsago) of Shona origin and two masks from Tanzania, which the gallery obtained in 1964, are safely back home after engaging an international museum security network and Interpol.
“We regard this as a huge victory for African museums that for long have been prime targets of for the plundering of their material culture and heritage. “With the help of our National Museum, we enlisted the services of renowned global cultural property protection expert, Mr Tom Cremers through his art theft organisation.
“We decided to publish information about this theft, accompanied by photographs on the organisation’s website. “After five months, in early November 2006, an American collector of African antiquities contacted the website indicating that he had been offered objects that looked very similar to those published on the site by a Poland resident. Subsequently, this led to his arrest by the Polish police after establishing that the artefacts were indeed the missing artefacts from Zimbabwe,” she said.
Sibanda commended the Polish police for not only recovering the artefacts but also for arresting the culprit, who is now serving a jail sentence, adding that the man turned out to be the one who committed the crime in Harare.
The man had, however, tried to evade arrest saying the treasured artefacts belonged o his late father who once worked in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia.
Sibanda added that the unveiling of the ethnographic objects, which landed from Germany on the October 3 this year, was made public as a way of educating the public about the worth of the country’s treasures, which she said were to be jealously safeguarded by each citizen.
The headrests are made of hardwood and are meticulously hand–carved with triangular designs and polished to a veneer finish. According to the gallery’s curator, the artefacts, which cannot be valued just like many traditional artefacts, had deep traditional symbolism with the headrest said to be the link between the living and the foregone Shona ancestors.
Theft of artworks is not new to Zimbabwe and the region at large. According to Interpol and the FBI, art theft is the third most lucrative crime in the world trailing drugs and illicit arms sales ‑ with billions being made from stolen art across the globe.
In 2012, US$2 million worth of precious oil paintings were stolen in a daylight-armed robbery in South Africa’s Pretoria Art Museum, after a robber took advantage of security laxity, as was the case with the Zimbabwean incident.
Some art theft incidences date back to the colonial era. Just in 2003, Germany returned stone carvings of a bird, which is Zimbabwe’s national symbol. The stone carvings were stolen some 100 years ago during the colonial era.