The Southeast Asian Art File

Whodunit? Who stole the paintings from Jakarta's Museum Nasional?

AMIR SIDHARTA

The Indonesian art world was shocked by the news of the theft of six paintings from Jakarta's National Museum. Even more shocking was the fact that at least two of the stolen paintings, Metamorphosis by Basoeki Abdullah and a portrait of a Dutch military officer decorated with the WIllem's Order by Raden Saleh were included in the catalog of the upcoming Christie's catalog in early October, 1996.

A cartoon by GM Sudarta published in last Friday's Kompas showed a Christie's auctioneer auctioning the Bronze elephant which symbolizes the National Museum, which is also popularly known as the Gedung Gajah or "Elephant Building". It clearly implied that the 230 year old auction house was in the business of auctioning off Indonesia's national treasures.

In fact, the theft would have probably not been revealed if it were not for the publication of the auction catalog. Members of the Basoeki Abdullah estate recognized lot 319 in the catalog, Nude, as Metamorphosis, one of the paintings that was in the custody of the National Museum. Meanwhile, lot 363 bore great resemblance to a painting reproduced in a catalog published by the Directorate of Culture, Department of Education and Culture, in preparation of the National Art Gallery in 1988. The pictures in the catalog were almost identical. There was a green stain on the figure's trousers, and damages were seen on the same location in both reproductions. The only difference was that in the later publication, that is the Christie's catalog, to the right of the figure's face the painting had been torn and badly restored.

Although auction houses mainly facilitate the sale of art works at the highest possible price according to the market condition in a certain region, they also become centers of documentation. "That is why we need Christie's! It records much of the changing of hands in the world of art," said Sudarmadji Damais, Head of the Jakarta History Museum at Taman Fatahilah after hearing about the theft last week.

"Christie's often helps locate stolen art," someone in the field of art auctions explained. Perhaps it has in other parts of the world, but in this case we can only hope that the paintings will be returned.

The reappearance of allegedly stolen Indonesian paintings in Christie's auction of Southeast Asian paintings has happened previously. One of Ida Bagus Made's fourteen paintings which were stolen a while ago and a Basoeki Abdullah from the collection of President Sukarno was offered in the Christie's auction in March 1995. However, because of insufficient proof, no investigation was pursued. Neither Ida Bagus Made nor Guruh Soekarnoputra filed police reports when the paintings were stolen or found missing. The inclusion of the painting in the album of the Paintings in the ollection of President Sukarno compiled by Dullah, apparently was not sufficient proof of theft.

"It is Christie's policy not to reveal the identity of either the seller or the buyer of the art works in their auctions," explained art writer Agus Dermawan, who is an avid observer of Indonesian auction trends. Therefore, the theft could not be traced.

Whether or not Christie's can be required by law to reveal the identity of the seller in the case of the two paintings stolen from Indonesia's National Museum will then depend on the laws in Singapore. Laws about stolen goods differs from country to country. According to a prominent Japanese art dealer in Japan, when a stolen painting has been sold it becomes the legal right of the buyer, and the original owners have to buy the painting back from the buyer. In other countries, legal ownership depends on whether the purchase was made before or after the official report of theft was reported to the police.

Time

At this point, we can only predict the time of theft and the characteristics of the thief. It might be helpful to try to analyse the whodunit. Considering that it takes at least three months for the inclusion of art works in a Christie's auction, Agus Dermawan T. estimates that the paintings were stolen before June.

Taking into account the fact that the estimated prices of the paintings were still quite reasonable, it seems that the paintings were stolen before the sale of Raden Saleh's Deer Hunt in late March of this year. If the theft took place after news of this landmark sale, the thieves would certainly expect rather high prices, at least for the Raden Saleh, and therefore increase the expected reserve price in the auction. Unfortunately, the reserves for the pieces remains confidential. However, it seems that the portrait still within a reasonable limits and therefore considered suitable for auction.

It seems that the theft occured after the publication of the Christie's catalog of the March auction. The catalog revealed the high estimate of the piece to parties interested in Indonesian art, and may have seduced the culprits to steal the Raden Saleh they know exists in the neglected possession of the National Museum. It is also possible that the pieces were stolen even earlier, perhaps after the announcement of the auction of the Deer Hunt late last year or earlier this year.

Profile

In terms of the profile of the thief/thieves, we can almost be sure that the seller of the paintings is not involved in the theft, unless he/she were either completely naive. As this case has proven, the inclusion of stolen items in auctions tends to reveal cases of theft.

It seems safe to say that the painting has changed hands at least twice before the paintings reached the seller. We can assume that the theft was masterminded by someone who had reasonable knowledge of art, and even knew that there was a Raden Saleh in the National Museum's collection placed in its storage space.

If there had been any indication of forced entry into the museum's storage, the theft would have been revealed immediately. It is almost certain that no sign of forced entry to the storage facility was traced, because the theft which happened at least three months ago was only revealed two weeks ago. This suggests the involvement of insiders.

Basoeki Abudllah's Nude is estimated at S$ 8,000 to S$ 12,000. Was it worth stealing? If the piece was expected to sell at around Rp. 20 million, then minus commissions and other expenses, the seller would have bought it for Rp. 12 million, at the most. Therefore, we can assume that the persons behind the theft paid less than Rp. 2.5 million for the job.

Then, we can almost be sure that the six paintings were stolen as a lot, and later sold to the seller as a lot as well. The Raden Saleh is estimated at S$ 100,000 to S$ 150,000. If the painting would have been sold (which I doubt because of the painting's poor condition) then I think it would only reach the low end of the estimate. At Rp. 165 million, minus commissions and expenses, the seller would have bought it for around Rp. 100 million. For this painting, the culprits behind the theft may have paid Rp. 20 million for the job. Coupled with the other paintings in the lot, the value of the job may have reached Rp. 30 million. This amount would presumably be divided among 2-3 persons. Although the sum, averaging Rp. 10 million, might not seem large, it is actually still quite substantial considering the wages of government employees in this country.

If the involvement of insiders is revealed, then punishment is of course necessary. However, we should not treat the involved insiders as having sold national treasures, even though they are in the National Museum's collection. It should be taken into account that the paintings most likely had been neglected in the museum's storage space and treated as insignificant pieces.

More crucial is to reveal the masterminds of this theft. It should be stressed that the masterminds have significant knowledge about art, Indonesian art, and the existence of important paintings in certain collection in the government. They also seem to know that some key paintings are kept in storage spaces of certain museums, although cooperation with insiders may lead them to this kind of information.

Certainly there is possibility that it is the work of a syndicate, which may also be involved in other art crimes, including art forgery, which is also rampantly developing in the country.

The boom in the field of painting which is currently happening in Indonesia may have positive impacts, including the heightening of the appreciation of fine art and the the growth of the art market. However, the negative impacts which may appear as a cause of the growth have to be anticipated.

In the case of the recent theft at the National Museum, the masterminds took advantage of the current condition of Indonesian museums, which have been the slowest in responding to the developments in the field. The increase in the interest in art among a growing number of collectors have been responded by an increase in the number of artists. A few painters have shown great improvement in the quality of their work. Accordingly there is also a significant increase in the quantity and quality of art exhibitions prepared by galleries. The galleries themselves are run with increasing professionalism, in close cooperation with art writers helping them to promote the shows.

While the artists, galleries and the art writers have all made efforts to face the challenge of the art boom, museums have failed to develop as rapidly, due to limitations in budget and authority. "I feel sorry about what happened at the National Museum, but honestly it could easily have happened in any museum in Indonesia. We have to put greater attention in the registration and storage systems of our museums," added Sudarmadji Damais. At this point the government is just starting to place more attention into the institutions of museums, but their efforts need support from the public and the private sectors.

The general public also needs to place more attention to their own museums. "We need to be more respectful toward our cultural heritage," said Guruh Soekarnoputra in response to this case, reminiscing the theft that he himself experienced. Hopefully this incident will draw attention from the Indonesian society to place more attention towards the cultural patrimony of the nation, especially those kept in museums.

The municipal government of Jakarta is working hard in improving their museums. Currently, the government's own fine arts museum in undergoing renovations, in response to the heightening of interest particularly in painting.

Perhaps the time has come for both the public and the private sector to establish museums which are not merely a place to store works of art and culture, but can also be institutions of learning through the display of educational exhibits, as well as destination places where people can go, enjoy and pursue their interests. It seems that it is time for the National Art Gallery, which seems to have been conceptualized, to immediately be planned.


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