On Campus

UBC museum theft leaves art world puzzled

UBC and museum offers $50,000 reward for return

RCMP have alerted Interpol about a weekend heist of valuable native artwork and Canada’s art world is abuzz over what motivated the theft from a B.C. museum. A dozen of the 15 pieces stolen overnight Friday from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia were by legendary native artist Bill Reid, an influential Haida artist who was born in Victoria and died in 1998.Theories abound as to why someone would break into the cliff-top museum, bypass the facility’s security and walk away with a collection of treasured pieces. There has been speculation the pieces could be destined to be melted down for their gold, while another theory is that thieves may have entered with a list drawn up by a nefarious collector.

The RCMP have sent descriptions of the art to Interpol, but have said little else. Along with the Reid pieces, three pieces of Mexican jewelry — two necklaces and a bracelet — were also taken.

The university and the museum are jointly offering a $50,000 reward for the return of the pieces, which are worth about $2 million.

Whatever the reason, museum curator Bill McLennan said it’s clear the break-in wasn’t random. “There’s no question about it that they were targeted,” McLennan said Monday, while sitting in front of a conspicuously empty case in the museum’s Bill Reid exhibit. “They brought in with them the equipment to do the job on some very high security cases. I think they must have had a fairly descent sense of what they were doing and what they were going for.”

McLennan said his worst fear is that whoever is responsible was simply after the raw gold. “That’s our biggest concern, that someone may melt it down and literally destroy these works of art that are so important to the history of traditional Northwest Coast (art) into a contemporary modern art form,” he said.

Most of the intricate pieces, mainly jewelry such as bracelets and brooches, are made out of gold. The most significant, McLennan said, is a gold box dating back to 1969, which features a three-dimensional sculpture of an eagle on the top, with the head of a bear on the front.

Some of the pieces — in particular the gold box — could be worth upwards of half a million dollars each, far more than the raw value of the gold, said the president of one of Canada’s leading fine art auction houses. “Well, the value of the gold is probably $10,000, $20,000 — the artistic, esthetic value is far greater,” said David Heffel of Heffel Fine Art Auction.

Heffel said the theft may have been targeted, given the prominence of the artist. “You can’t buy paintings from a museum, and there’s people out there that maybe have the misdirection that you can acquire pieces by having them stolen,” he said. “They (the thieves) may have been employed or commissioned, given a shopping list.”

But Heffel said it would be incredibly difficult for someone to try and sell the pieces in a legitimate auction, since most auction houses check for work on international databases of stolen or missing art before they can be sold. At any rate, Heffel said art theft is incredibly rare in Canada.

The only other major case Heffel could recall was from the Art Gallery of Ontario four years ago. Five ivory sculptures belonging to billionaire Ken Thomson and valued at $1.5 million were stolen in January 2004, only to be returned two weeks later. “It’s pretty uncommon for a theft to happen at a museum in Canada,” he said. “You just assume that these museums are impenetrable, but I guess as of this weekend, it’s proven to be not the fact.”

Reid’s mother was Haida and his father European. Reid, who began sculpting at a very young age, first learned about his Haida heritage as a young man. He then visited the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia, where he discovered Haida art.

Peter Malkin, the acting director of the Bill Reid Foundation in Vancouver, said the theft of Reid’s work represents an incredible loss for Canadian art. His Spirit of Haida Gwaii is even featured on the $20 bill. “He was chosen because of the incredible contributions he made to Canada’s cultural life, in particular the flowering and international recognition of Northwest culture and Haida culture. He essentially revived a tradition that had been quiet,” Malkin said.

-with a report from CP

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