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Grace Cossington Smith and the Macquarie Galleries mystery

Grace Cossington Smith Study of a head: self-portrait 1916, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased with funds from the Marie and Vida Breckenridge Bequest 2010 © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

With the exhibition O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: making modernism currently showing at the Gallery, now is a perfect time to revisit one of the most mysterious crimes in Australian art – the theft of 28 Grace Cossington Smith paintings from Macquarie Galleries on 4 April 1977.

According to the police report, some time after 3am four men were seen breaking the glass doors of Macquarie Galleries at 40 King Street, Sydney, and making a getaway in a maroon Holden sedan a few minutes later. In the 40 years since then no one has been charged with the crime and none of the paintings and drawings have ever been recovered.

What makes this story even more compelling are the questions that continue to linger around the case. Who was the anonymous caller who tipped off the police? Nobody knows. What happened to the Polaroids that Art Gallery of NSW curator Daniel Thomas had taken of the exhibition and provided to the police for reference? Were they simply misplaced, or purposely lost? Why were there so few newspaper reports of the theft? Was the story being hushed up by someone in a position of power?

Cossington Smith was 85 at the time of the theft and had lived most of her life in her family home at Turramurra on Sydney’s North Shore. Though she led a secluded, suburban existence, by the 1970s she was nonetheless recognised as one of the first artists to bring modernism to Australia, and her 1915 painting The sock knitter had been acclaimed as the first ‘post-impressionist’ painting to be exhibited in Australia. In 1973 she had been made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in the same year a retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW.

With the growing recognition of her achievements, Cossington Smith’s work continued to increase in value, and yet she had not completed a significant painting since 1971. According to Bruce James, author of the book Grace Cossington Smith, it was ‘common knowledge Cossington Smith had ceased to paint. She produced her shows from ever-diminishing reserves of older material.’

Of the 28 works stolen from Macquarie Galleries, six had already been reserved for the National Gallery of Australia and two had been pre-purchased by the Nepean College of Advanced Education and the John Darnell Fine Arts Collections, University of Queensland. This further confirms not only Cossington Smith’s increasing cachet as an important Australian artist, but also a community-wide sense that only a limited number of her paintings could be expected to appear on the market.

Perhaps the thieves realised this as well and decided that so many Cossington Smiths in one place was an opportunity too good to miss. Was this why only her pictures were stolen and those by Salvatore Zoffrea, on display in a smaller exhibition, were left behind?

Theories continue to circulate about who was responsible for the theft and where the paintings are now. Some believe the thieves were hired by an obsessive local collector. Or that it was an insurance scam. Perhaps they were destroyed in a bid to increase the value of Cossington Smith’s other works. Or a jealous rival had decided to make a bold move. According to Bruce James, in an article he wrote for the Good Weekend in 1996, there is a theory that a Tokyo industrialist hired the thieves and that the pictures now hang in the private rooms of an exclusive golf club on the Japanese mainland.

Even if such theories are dismissed as outlandish there are still many fundamental questions that remain unanswered. How did the thieves move so many paintings into the back of a car so quickly? Why did they risk detection by smashing the front doors of the gallery instead of just picking the lock? Why have none of the pictures ever resurfaced?

Cossington Smith was devastated by the theft and was soon to discover that Macquarie Galleries was (not surprisingly) under-insured against burglary of an entire exhibition. After numerous negotiations, she eventually sought legal representation. The case was settled out of court and Cossington Smith was awarded $8000, plus costs. The paintings themselves had been valued at the time at a total of $24,800.

The only evidence of the theft to be found in the Macquarie Galleries archive, held in the archives at the Art Gallery of NSW, is the eloquently empty page of a sales book, a receipt book with the word ‘stolen’ written across an entry for the sale of one of the paintings, and the catalogue for the exhibition, which contains important information about the missing works such as titles, sizes and medium. Pamela James, an art historian at the University of Western Sydney, used this information a few years ago to conduct informal research through Australian auction databases to see if any of the stolen works had re-entered the marketplace. She believes she has identified three or four of the paintings, though the lack of visual confirmation available and the time that has passed makes it very difficult to prove.

So the mystery remains unsolved. And perhaps feels even more frustrating once you visit the Making modernism exhibition and see for yourself the wonderful work Grace Cossington Smith created. What other pictures might still be out there? Will we ever know?

Click on the catalogue image to view a larger version

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August 14 2017, 9am
by Sean Rabin
Research library and archive