Tag Archives: art crimes

The Woman Who Stole Vermeer

“We are looking for either a master thief or a madman.” Scotland Yard incorrectly assumed. For it was a woman, Rose Dugdale, who was the mastermind behind art thefts and one attempt at an aerial bombing of a police station. The book could have been titled: “the woman who stole Vermeers” because she probably stole two.

This biography of Rose Dugdale follows a strictly chronological narrative. Consequently, it has a prolonged start with her childhood and education, including her PhD. Followed by the development of her earnest politics. And then more chapters on the background of the Irish Troubles, Bloody Sunday and other revolutionary politics of the 1960s. 

There are 262 pages in the book, including the author’s note, bibliography, endnotes and acknowledgements. It is only on p. 99 that any art is stolen, and then they are unnamed paintings from Dugdale’s family home. And not until p.147 that a Vermeer is stolen.

Not that it takes the police long to arrest her and recover the stolen art. Famous stolen art might not be able to be sold, but there are often political motivations for art theft. And Dugdale was all about politics.

Despite defending Dugdale’s autonomy and leadership in his introduction, author, Anthony M. Amore fails to provide evidence that anyone ever suggested otherwise.

Amore, the Director of Security and Chief Investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, has written two other books about art crimes Stealing Rembrandt and The Art of the Con. However, his “investigator and security practitioner” background was a problem because his subject, Dugdale, wouldn’t talk to him for fear her interview could be used to convict former IRA members. Not that his background in security seems to give him any insights into the three art thefts. Unfortunately, this means that he can’t examine Dugdale’s intellectual life, nor does it provide any insight into Irish politics.

From my background in Melbourne, I could see how Dugdale’s attempted ransom of the Vermeer could have influenced the Australian Cultural Terrorists to ransom Picasso’s Weeping Woman and their choice of the word ‘terrorist’. 

Furthermore, my own research shows that although there are less than forty authentic paintings by Vermeer, it is remarkable that at least five were stolen in the 1970s (something Amore fails to mention). Even more notable of those five, at least three were stolen for political reasons (to aid the IRA and Bengali refugees of East Pakistan). The small size of his paintings made Vermeer the perfect target for art theft.

Anthony M. Amore The Woman Who Stole Vermeer (Pegasus Crime, 2020)


Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Art Forgery Book

In Forged Jonathon Keats looks at art forgery with the usual stories of art forgery. The first part of the book Keats tells a short history of art from Ancient Egypt to the present day from the perspective of his thesis of the greatness of fakes. In this loose history Keats doesn’t distinguish between fakes, forgeries, copies, appropriation and piracy. In an odd version of the artistic skill verses originality argument Keats argues that forgeries are the great art.

However, Keats’s argument only works when the fake is discovered or revealed because part of the greater quality that Keats believes exists in them is that they have fooled people in the past. There is little else to prove any quality aside from the fact that they fooled people who wanted to be fooled, like Nazi’s supporting the forgery of medieval turkeys because the Vikings could have brought them back from America. When the fake has not been discovered it remains a mediocre to poor example of the supposed artist’s work.

The second part, and the bulk of the book, tells the story of several famous forgers in the twentieth century: Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han Van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn, and Tom Keating. All of these forgers have been extensively written about in many other books.

It is in these biographical chapters that Keats argument of technique over anything else flounders. Even when cherry picking examples of famous forgers their technical ability appears over-rated. The Australian forger Pamela Liberto’s fake Rover Thomas works proved that you don’t need any artistic talent or technique to make and sell fakes.

These famous forgers are not really an appealing lot and Keats doesn’t help them; he even compares Van Meegeren’s aesthetics to Hitler’s. The famous forgers that Keats writes about are bitter, thwarted anachronisms; they certainly don’t appear to be the great artists of our age.

In the third part Keats continues his history of art that he started in the first part. He doesn’t look at forgeries at all but rather at copies. The closest that this part gets to forged is the art of J. S. G. Boggs who hand-draws pictures of money and exchanges it for goods of that value. There is an examination of copies of Mona Lisa by Warhol, Banksy and Duchamp before wandering into contemporary art.

It feels like the meat of this book, art forgers, has been sandwiched between an essay on originality in the history of art and I don’t think that they go together.

Jonathon Keats Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press 2013)


Art Crimes in Australia (in progress)

Avant in Procession by Vincent Jean-Baptiste Chevillard was the first painting  to be stolen in Australia; the small painting was taken in 1885 but fortunately it is still in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. I am still working on my book on art crimes.

Avant in Procession by Vincent Jean-Baptiste Chevillard
(image courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia)

At first the book was just going to be about Melbourne’s art crimes but I have since expanded it to cover art crimes in Australia. I did’t want to buy into the old interstate rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney and I had already written about several art crimes that involved interstate and international elements. There are also several interstate true crime stories that were too tempting for me not to write about including the fake Pollock exhibition that toured Australia. Then I got a scoop about Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise taken from the Queensland Art Gallery and I’ll leave that as a teaser.  

So as part of my seemly endless research for this book, please contact me if you can help with any of the following.

Can anyone suggest any politically motivated crimes involving art outside of Melbourne, apart from the decapitation of statues (see my post about Australia’s most controversial sculptures).

Any interesting crimes involving graffiti that are not from Melbourne, aside from Buga-up.

Any art crime in Tasmania, as it is one state or territory where I haven’t heard of even a stolen painting.

Any of the relatives of Constantin Celli, an artist who trained in Florence, who was residing in Paddington in 1906 when he was exploited by some crooked antique dealers, because I’d like to find out what happened to him later in his life.

The current owners of a miniature, ‘Wings, Ancient and Modern,’ depicting a boy, with birds flying around him and aeroplanes in the sky by the English painter, Dora Webb because it would be fascinating to know where it has ended up.

A serving or former police officer in Australia who has investigated any art theft, art forgery or the vandalism of art and wants to discuss the crime.

For more information about my investigation of art crimes see my previous blog post about my art and crime book.


Goodbye 2018

On my way to Yarra Sculpture Gallery this year I saw a ghost sign painted on an empty building. It reminded me of one of the reasons why I write this blog. I want to record something of the galleries in Melbourne today.

“J Miller Art Gallery / Pictures Framers Restorers / Sales Service & Supplies 419 7516”

The old telephone number before the 9 prefix was added to Melbourne telephone numbers in 1995. Miller’s gallery provided a range of services; contemporary art galleries in Melbourne no long do picture framing as part of their business.

The State Library Victoria has a one folded invitation card and one sheet press release for an exhibition at J Miller Art Gallery. The exhibition was by the Polish artist, Grzegorz Morycinski, March 14, [no year, circa late 1980s?]. Morycinski was a contemporary painter who spent four months in Australia in 1987.

Perhaps my blog posts will simply contribute to a more complete archive of Melbourne’s art world (not a vain hope as this blog is preserved by the State Library of Victoria on Pandora).

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I am still working on my book on art and crime as I have decided to expand it from Melbourne’s art crimes to Australian art crimes. I have been posted a couple these stories from my research, and a couple of times I have been rewarded with more information. 

Perth’s Fake Pollock Exhibition 

The theft of La belle Hollandaise  

The Life and Art of Ronald Bull 

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I have been fortunate to be born a white heterosexual male in an Anglophone culture and it has been a privilege. The only downside was that I was in generation X, a punk anarchist and there are thousands of guys like me. Writing about Melbourne’s visual arts appears to be a good use of my academic skill set. (Thanks to the Australian tax payers for providing me with the free education. I hope that I am paying it forward with my blog.) However, for much of this year I don’t have been trying to listen, learn and leave room for other voices.

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So goodbye to 2018; this blog will return in 2019.


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