ArtCrime2019: “Iconoclasts, vandals, and artists”

The New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust held its fifth anniversary symposium on Saturday 19 October 2019 at City Gallery, Wellington.  This year’s theme, “Iconoclasts, vandals, and artists”, led to a day filled with fascinating, thought-provoking presentations:


  • Catherine Gardner (a Case Management Specialist with an interest in art crime) spoke about what makes a vandal, and why people vandalise art. She proposed several reasons, including political causes, mental illness, attention seeking, beliefs, and taste in art, and considered the idea of a “serial vandal”.  Sadly vandalism can have very serious consequences for art, including destroying an artwork’s essence (for example if a Rembra
    ndt is so seriously damaged and then conserved it is essentially no longer painted by Rembrandt himself), and causing art to be hidden away behind protective barriers to the detriment of everyone who might want to enjoy it.
  • Sue Elliot (Chair of the Wellington Sculpture Trust) detailed the Wellington Sculpture Trust’s history, the work it does, and the large collection of sculptural works in its care.  Most of the Trust’s sculptures remain untouched by vandalism, although Elliot described a few notable examples that have been the target of tagging, stone throwing, and even climbing (in the case of Len Lye’s Water Whirler on the Wellington waterfront).  Elliot also discussed sentencing for such acts of vandalism in relation to Water Whirler.
  • Jonathan Barrett (Commercial Law Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington Business School) questioned the distinction between the treatment, care and management of art that is held privately compared to art that is held publicly, and proposed that all owners of art works (or at least those of particular significant or value) should have duties in respect of their “curatorial property”, whether they are a private person or a public institution. Barrett used the analogy of a cute puppy and the responsibility of care expected of its owner.
  • Ewan Morris (Historian) explained that monuments are “having a moment”. Monuments are often seen to represent big issues such as colonialism, racism, and white supremacy, so can be targets for protest through acts of vandalism.  Morris queried whether such monuments, which raise complex issues about the legacy of the past, should be removed from public view.
  • Linda Tyler (Convener of Museums and Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland) looked at targets of vandalism in an era of historical rebalancing, such as statues of Captain Cook. Tyler explained that vandalism of such objects is not about hatred of the art, but that something about the art is calling for a response.  Those who vandalise or damage public art works in this way are displaying a hostility against the ideas embodied in the art, rather than against the art itself.  She proposed that instead of removing the artworks from public view altogether, perhaps art should be used to combat the feelings evoked.
  • William Cottrell (Antique Restorer and Colonial Furniture Specialist) described the boldness of colonial furniture designers who unreservedly copied copyrighted furniture designs from their counterparts in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Cottrell described the lengths some furniture makers went to in the 19th century in appropriating other makers’ designs, without attribution and often with clear evidence of the copying.
  • Rod Thomas (Associate Professor at the Law School, Auckland University of Technology) paper scoped the idea of recovering art by vindication of property rights referencing two New Zealand examples.  Thomas looked at the case of Edward Bullmore and the misappriation of the late artist’s collection as outlined by Penelope Jackson in Art Thieves, Fakers, & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story and another case involving an artist and their dealer (Stephen Bambury v Andrew Jensen).  The latter case involved 12 days in the High Court of New Zealand.  He outlined how civil proceedings might provide the claimant/s with a greater chance of recovering artworks or funds from the sale of artworks.
  • Ngarino Ellis (Senior Lecturer and Convenor of Art History at the University of Auckland, and one of the NZACRT’s founding trustees) gave a close examination of vandalism and censorship of Maori carving.  Using a myriad of examples, Ellis demonstrated how wooden carvings have been ‘doctored’ over time.  The appalling lack of respect and understanding for these works is now viewed as intolerable, but sadly the way in which these taonga have been vandalised make them irreparable.  Ellis also touched on the ‘vandalism’ of Maori rock drawings in relationship to Theo Schoon who is currently represented in the City Gallery’s exhibition Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoonand New Zealand Art, in which issues around vandalism are addressed.

Towards the end of the day, Sebastian Clarke (Senior Policy Adviser from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage) talked about the work that has been undertaken by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and Massey University to set up a national register of public art.  After much planning and preparatory work, the register now lists over 700 public artworks, with much more still to be added.  Clarke outlined some of the complexities involved (including the need to consider heritage considerations, and the issue of private artworks in public spaces to which the public often feel a strong sense of attachment).  This presentation led into audience discussion about the possibility of a private art loss register in New Zealand, something that is often mooted but which faces some significant hurdles to get off the ground, in particular the need for clear leadership and major funding.


Lastly, one of our founding trustees Louisa Gommans chatted with fellow Trustee and art historian Penelope Jackson about her latest book, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime.  Jackson’s book explores the world of art crimes committed by females – something that no author has done before, and she explained that stories of art and crime have been underrepresented and silenced by men.   The idea for her book grew when she realised what a small role women played in her earlier book (Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story), which made her suspicious that there was more to be uncovered.  Her goal, she said, was to try to change the way we think about women, art, and crime.


The day concluded with a drinks and nibbles function in the foyer of City Gallery, which was a great opportunity for attendees to get together and talk further about the ideas raised and topics discussed throughout the day.

We can’t wait to see you at our next symposium in 2020!

Penelope Jackson signing copies of her new book “Females in the Frame: Women, Art and Crime” at the pre-Symposium book launch





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