John Opit owned $67 million worth of art that he kept in his studio in the town of Limpinwood, 80 kilometers from Murwillimbah. He had a painting by Paul Cezanne, called Paul Cezanne’s Son in A High Chair. He also had pictures by Winslow Homer, John Peter Russell, Arthur Streeton, Norman Lindsay and John Glover. Some thieves broke in a stole them. According to Opit, the thieves “knew what they were doing”.
You may have read the story, it was on TV and in all the papers – it made the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian and it was on NineMSN as a breaking story – although at first, the website just printed the AAP wire copy and reported that the alleged Cezanne painting was bona fide. Hastily reposted 20 minutes later, NineMSN were then saying that “doubts had emerged” over the painting’s authenticity:
Police said the theft occurred between 9pm (AEDT) on Saturday and 1.30am (AEDT) on Thursday, when the thief or thieves knew the owner or residents were going to be away for a number of days.
This allowed them to do that (steal the works) with some success. Certainly at this stage it would appear as though it’s a reasonably professional job,” Sergeant David Rose told Sky News.
“An entry was forced to the property. I understand that a security system there had been disabled, again an indication that these people probably knew what they were after.”
Our favourite part of the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage was some priceless quotes from Opit when confronted with experts who were saying the painting was a phony:
And last night, after spending the day avoiding the media, an angry John Opit hit back at the art world’s skepticism in an interview with the Herald.
“Who are these so-called experts?” he said. “Of course the painting has no provenance; it was a painting of his child. I can prove it’s real; it has an insignia. Ask them about that.”
“It was absolute bullshit if they say they can tell from a photograph whether the painting is real.”
How did he judge its value at $50 million? “Check the Sotheby’s records. See what a Cezanne canvas three feet by two and a half is worth. It’s worth $50 million.”
Now call us cynical, but a possible give away that the Cezanne picture was a fraud may be the fact that it is called Paul Cezanne’s Son in A High Chair? Wouldn’t Cezanne have called it something else? Like My Son In His High Chair or even This Painting Was Done By Me, Paul Cezanne of Tahiti! ???
The Herald also unearthed an art ‘expert’ named Lou Kelpac who described finding an unknown Cezanne in some bloke’s studio as like “finding a crocodile in the Antarctic.”
Oh, how we laughed. Then we had a chill – it’s not entirely impossible that a painting by Cezanne could turn up in Australia (although you would be hard pressed to believe that Opit’s painting is the real deal – unless it comes from Cezanne’s notorious Shit Period paintings). Just going by the laws of probability, it’s not impossible that there’s a Cezanne lurking somewhere, just very, very improbable.
As Kelpac told NineMSN:
Mr Klepac suggested if the painting did not appear in a comprehensive catalogue by Cezanne scholar John Rewald, who died in 1994, then it was unlikely a true Cezanne.
“But again you never know, there are things that have slipped through the net and people find works by Van Gogh and so on still,” Mr Klepac said.
“There are still a few things to be found, and this could be one of them.”
He said the 1873 date of the painting fitted because Cezanne’s child, Paul, was born in 1872.
The fact is, we may never know if it was real or not because the chances of Opit’s paintings being found again are virtually zero. Back in 1999 Justice Murray Wilcox’s country house was burgled by art thieves who took off with (real) paintings by John Coburn, Leon Pericles and Norman Lindsay. In 1998, Tom Mathieson Gallery had its doors busted down and a Norman Lindsay sketch and painting taken. They are all still missing. The Australian Federal Police don’t even have the power to investigate run–of-the-mill art theft, only “national treasures” like Aboriginal artifacts coming under their remit.
It’s a pity Opit didn’t have the money to insure his treasure trove of paintings – there’s no way the cops are ever going to find them.