In August 1998, the Auckland Art Gallery was the scene of this country’s first major art theft. An armed man burst in, threatening visitors and assaulting a security guard before making off with the 19th century painting Still on Top by French artist James Tissot, worth around $2 million. Visitor Experience Manager Richard Wormley was on duty in the gallery when it happened.
“One of the security guards was requesting assistance because he could see somebody trying to remove an artwork from the wall. When I came around the corner, I could see that it wasn’t quite that simple.”
The man was carrying a weapon and had just used it to assault a security guard. A visitor in the gallery with the gunman immediately rang the police. Richard retreated and he and his staff began moving the public into side galleries, away from a likely escape route through the foyer.
"By the time I had cleared the foyer and turned around, he was pretty much right behind me.”
With the weapon pointed at him, Richard was ordered to get down on the ground. After the gunman exited the front doors, Richard and the visitor who had rung the police followed him around to the rear of the building.
“He turned around and fired a shot over our heads into the trees in Albert Park. At which point we both hit the ground pretty quick.”
The gunman escaped on a motorbike clutching the painting under one arm. Only four minutes had passed since the drama began. Conservator Sarah Hillary was working upstairs in her lab when she got a phone call from the head of security. “He rang me up and said, ‘Sarah, something terrible has happened.’
A confused Sarah made her way to the gallery to examine the scene and to determine any damage to a painting she assumed was still there. But it wasn’t. It was gone.
As well as distressing, the theft was confusing for both gallery staff and police. On the surface, it did not seem like the work of highly professional art thieves, stealing to order. Richard Wormley said he could not even imagine a reason for the crime.
“I struggled to see how you could turn that work into a profit. It was really hard to understand what had been going through the thief’s’ head.”
But police had little to go on and it seemed only a tip off from the public would solve this confusing case. However, the case was about to break wide open.
Only nine days had passed since the robbery when some solid police work paid off. Two other armed robberies on a bank and a security van seemed similar in method to the gallery robbery. Importantly they all resembled the methods of a known criminal. Police put two and two together and surrounded an isolated house in Port Waikato with members of the Armed Offenders Squad. The occupant became aware he was being watched and attempted to flee, first on a motorbike and then on foot. He was quickly apprehended. When Police entered the house, they found the painting under a bed. Sarah Hillary was one of the first of the gallery staff to see it.
"It had all these holes and tears, jagged cuts and bits missing. It really was in a very sad state.”
The damage included jagged cuts, numerous paint losses, and two large missing sections of canvas. Sarah says that when the gunman threw the painting on the floor and broke its glass cover, the glass shards cut the canvas. It was further damaged by being forced out of the back of the frame. At a later point, the gunman decided to cut the painting off its stretcher in order to roll it up. Cuts were made on three sides before it must have become obvious that this would destroy the painting fully and so it was taped back on.
Chris Saines, who was gallery director at the time, described the painting as having been savaged. Richard Wormley remembers being shocked by the extent of the damage and he questioned whether it could ever go back on display again. Talking to Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme at the time, Sarah was confident that the painting could be restored to a good extent but was quite clear about the limitations of the conservation process.
“Once damage has occurred that damage will always be there, even if you can’t see them.”
Eventually, after careful assessment and discussion it was decided the painting was too fragile to move to another site for repair. The restoration would take place at the Auckland Art Gallery. For Sarah Hillary and her team, this was the start of nearly three years of painstaking research, testing, weaving of canvas fibres, filling of losses, cleaning, retouching and varnishing
As Sarah continued the restoration work, Richard Wormley was in the High Court testifying at the gunman’s trial. “That was like ripping a plaster off the wound for sure.” The accused conducted his own defence and was aggressive in his questioning of Richard and his staff. “He was the man with the gun and now he was the man with the questions.” But his aggressive questioning was in vain. On the 24th of September 1999 Anthony Ricardo Sannd was sentenced to close to seventeen years in jail.
Sarah and her team completed the restoration and Still on Top went back on display in July 2001 in a special exhibition celebrating the restoration process. It was a tremendous success and the gallery’s conservation team enjoyed a level of visibility and prominence they had never before experienced.
Anthony Sannd was released on parole in 2008 but was recalled to jail just two months later. He was freed once more in 2012.
Both Sarah Hillary and Richard Wormley continue to work at the Auckland Art Gallery.
James’s Tissot’s Still on Top is still on display, and to most visitors eyes, looks just as good as ever.