South Africa

Scorpio: The Great Art Heist: ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule in ‘stolen’ Pierneef painting debacle

ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule is at the centre of a criminal investigation into the disappearance of a valuable Pierneef painting from the premier’s office in Bloemfontein.

Scorpio can reveal that a painting by South African landscape master JH Pierneef, with an estimated value of up to R8-million, went missing from a safe in the Free State premier’s office earlier in 2018. The alleged theft occurred during the time that Magashule was vacating his office in the Free State to assume his new role as the ruling party’s Secretary-General. The painting belongs to the provincial government. The matter has been reported to the Hawks, and sources familiar with the saga say Magashule is directly implicated in the alleged theft. Documents pertaining to the matter suggest that a provincial government official removed the painting from a safe in Magashule’s office around the end of February. The official, Ricardo Mettler, was on Magashule’s security detail and is said to be close to the former premier. Mettler admits that Magashule gave him the painting, but he says the entire issue resulted from an honest mistake. According to Mettler, he had helped Magashule clean out his office earlier in 2018. The painting was accidentally placed among Magashule’s personal belongings and not among those that belonged to the state, claims Mettler. He says the painting was taken to the outgoing premier’s residence in Bloemfontein, where Magashule told him that he could have the valuable Pierneef. The painting wasn’t stolen at all, it was given to me by Magashule, but afterwards we realised that it was an error,” claims Mettler. But sources familiar with the matter tell a different story. Mettler is claimed to have given the painting to a local businessman from Bloemfontein. After he obtained the painting, the businessman called Strauss & Co, one of South Africa’s foremost art auction houses. The businessman wanted Strauss & Co to help him determine the painting’s value. He was also concerned about its origins and wanted art experts to help him find out who lawfully owned the work. Strauss & Co representatives were suspicious from the outset about the valuable painting’s origins. The auction house roped in Pierneef experts from across the country to try to find the piece’s lawful owner. Strauss & Co also placed an image of the work in an advertisement that called for consignments for an upcoming auction. This was done to draw further attention to the mysterious painting. An art expert familiar with the Free State provincial government’s art collection saw the painting in the advertisement and subsequently notified provincial officials that one of their paintings may have been stolen. Officials then checked the safe in Magashule’s old office and discovered that the painting was indeed missing. Department officials contacted Strauss & Co and told them that they were in possession of a stolen painting that belonged to the Free State government, according to one of the documents. It is understood that Strauss & Co reported the matter to the authorities some time during or after September. Dr Alastair Meredith, an art expert from Strauss & Co, confirmed that a law firm representing the auction house had reported the matter to the Hawks. We will always do everything in our power to ensure that [allegedly] stolen art works don’t enter the market,” said Meredith. Meredith said the painting is in safe hands. The Hawks did not respond to queries. The painting, which depicts the eastern Free State’s mountainous landscape, is said to be worth between R6-million and R8-million. It is one of the renowned artist’s undated works. According to sources familiar with the matter, Mettler was summoned to the premier’s office to explain to officials how he had obtained the painting. He allegedly also told them that Magashule had given it to him as a gift. Government insiders in the province say Mettler was known for his close ties to Magashule. Mettler makes no secret of this on his social media. In December 2017, he posted two pictures of himself with the then newly-elected ANC SG. My boss my mentor my SG congrats unite the ANC I salute you,” Mettler wrote next to a picture he had posted on the day the ANC elected its Top Six officials at the Nasrec centre in Johannesburg. The Pierneef forms part of a considerable collection of valuable works acquired by the provincial government before and after 1994. Sources familiar with the matter say the painting may not be the only missing work, and that a thorough investigation would need to be done to determine the whereabouts of all the items on the province’s art inventory. Queries regarding Magashule’s involvement in the matter were sent to ANC spokespersons Pule Mabe and Zizi Kodwa. Both Mabe and Kodwa read the queries on WhatsApp, but neither responded. DM

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