Dear Reader: The Ace of Arts

In this issue you will find an extract from Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s new book: Gangster State – unravelling ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule’s web of capture. A must-read. That and similar exposés published over the past year, have persuaded me that to vote for the ANC in this election is to make yourself an accessory to crime – itself a crime.

Myburgh exposes mind-boggling misappropriation facilitated by Magashule of billions of rands intended for housing the poor – the same people the ANC now brazenly claims it will house if it is reelected. 

But even “petty” theft apparently features on Magashule’s agenda: the South African Heritage Resources Agency is deeply concerned about how last year a painting by renowned artist J H Pierneef that belonged to the Free State Administration and for decades had pride of place in the Premier’s office, ended up being offered for auction to art auctioneers Strauss and company by ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule’s notorious bagman-bodyguard, Ricardo Mettler.

A similar painting was recently sold by the auctioneers for R20 million.

Mettler claimed that the painting “ended up” in a “pile of things” that Magashule wanted his bodyguard to “dispose of” when he was packing up to leave the Premier’s office in January last year to take up his new top post at ANC head office, Luthuli House in Johannesburg.

In March last year Mettler is said to have asked “a wealthy Chinese businessman” in Bloemfontein to arrange for the painting to be sold by art auctioneers Strauss & Co.

At the prospect of such an important artwork becoming available for auction, Strauss’s fine art expert, Dr Alistair Meredith immediately flew from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein to examine the painting. It was genuine, a rare find, unknown to the art-collector community. But Meredith was immediately suspicious when the intermediary refused to identify the seller or say anything about the painting’s provenance. He became even more suspicious when the intermediary eventually identified the seller as the premier’s bodyguard.

Fearing it might be stolen, Meredith accepted it for auction, but instead placed it in safe storage while he launched a months-long investigation to establish its origin. All major art galleries and museums in the country were asked if they knew anything about it. None did.

Finally it was decided to publish a picture of the painting in an ad campaign. Within hours two callers identified it as belonging in the Free State Premier’s office. Strauss contacted their lawyers and laid a charge with the Parkwood police station in Johannesburg in August.

Only in November did the police respond: a hostile group of policemen claiming to be from the Hawks arrived at Strauss’s offices in Houghton with arrest warrants for Dr Meredith and Strauss CEO Suzie Goodman for being in possession of stolen goods. They demanded that the painting be handed to them. Outraged and doubly suspicious, they refused to hand over the painting and called their attorneys. An hour later, the initial group of policemen melted away to be replaced by a more polite group of senior Hawks officers, who took witness statements from Meredith and Goodman, and then took the painting having given Strauss a written assurance that it would be returned to Bloemfontein.

It has been returned – but all is not well. Five months later, still no-one has been charged or arrested. The intermediary who handled the transaction – and knew enough about the value of the picture to know to approach Strauss with it – has not been named. The Strauss directors refused to tell Noseweek, claiming client confidentiality. When we expressed surprise that they would hide the identity of a client peddling stolen goods of considerable value, they hedged and said their attorneys had instructed them to say nothing that might prejudice the police investigation. Which raises the question: how difficult, in the circumstances could the investigation be? Unless of course the real problem is that one of the obvious suspects is the most senior member of the ANC and his cohort.

Back to the concern of the Heritage Resources Agency: A spokesperson said the agency was not only concerned about the Pierneef that went awol; they are doubly concerned about rumours that numerous paintings and antiques in the Premier’s residence, Vrystaat House, might similarly have disappeared. “By law our permission is required before any of those may be disposed of. None has been asked for or been given.” 

Another Pierneef is said to have featured, in an inventory compiled in 1994, together with paintings by the likes of Maggie Laubscher and Terence McCaw, Thinus de Jongh and Gregoire Boonzaier.

Asked by local newspaper, Die Volksblad to  provide them with a copy of the inventory and to confirm that all the items on it were still in place, Tiisetso Makhele, spokesperson for the current premier, Sisi Ntombela (previously spokeperson for Magashule) refused to do so “because the Hawks are still investigating”. – The Editor

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