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January 14, 2013

Indonesian Police Investigate Mysterious Art Heist

by Kate Lamb

More than 100 works by a master of Indonesian modern art have been stolen from a museum in Central Java. Some people believe the rare, high-profile theft was an inside job.

In the Indonesian art world, Widayat is seen as a national asset, who pioneered a unique modern style. His paintings have been described as cubistic, abstract and magical decorative.

But today, some of his pieces are best described as missing.

Last week, more than 100 paintings were stolen from the H. Widayat Museum in Magelang, Central Java.

Wang Zineng, a contemporary art specialist for auction house Christie’s, says art heists are already rare in Indonesia, but this incident is particularly strange.

“I think it is rather unusual because generally the people who are most closely observing the art scene believe this is an insider job," noted Wang,"and hence this makes it unusual as generally thieves do not have a vested interest in the pictures that they’re stealing, except that they want to make a profit off them.”

Zineng says the works of Widayat are some of the rarest around, as most belong to the museum and private collectors.

Some in the art world are now blaming Widayat’s own children for the theft.

Art collector Oei Hing Djien says that not all of Widayat’s 11 children agree with their father’s wish to hold a large portion of his work in the museum - and off the art market.

“Part of his legacy was already distributed among all the children, but maybe there are some [of his children] who are in the position they need funds, like that," Oei said. "They want more, I don’t know exactly, but in the past that already happened.”

In the past, one of Widayat’s sons and a former director of the museum is reported to have taken several of his father’s works.

Those paintings have never been returned.

Regardless of who took the paintings, Christie’s Wang Zineng says it may be tough to sell them off.

“The paintings are not going to be easy to resell in the market, at least not at auction, " Wang explained, "because international auction houses like Christie's consult the arts laws register as well an informal database of lost paintings to make sure that whatever comes are not stolen material with no proper legal ownership. In this case, these paintings are now in questionable ownership.”

Widayat produced more than 1,000 works before he passed away, in 2002.

A Widayat painting titled, “Adam and Eve in Paradise” was recently sold by Christie’s for more than $100,000.

Police are investigating the case.