The art heist you’ve never heard of

In 1986, two Sydney thieves-for-hire named Nigel and Noel broke into a Benedictine monastery in remote Western Australia and stole 26 priceless old master paintings by the likes of Murillo, Raphael and Titian.

At Australia’s only monastic town, New Norcia, established in 1846 by Spanish missionary Bishop Rosendo Salvado, 132 kilometers north of Perth, the thieves discovered the sacred and devotional artworks were too big to fit into the boot of their rented gold Ford Falcon, so the pair hacked the precious canvases from their frames.

A new three-part SBS documentary series, The Mission, follows the trail of the paintings, which were all quickly recovered, though each was damaged. Some canvases were found at Nigel’s home, others at the home of an art mule named Bruce, and the remainder in a Sydney office, rolled in canisters bound for the Philippines.

Operating through a fog of methadone and tranquilisers, hapless Noel would later claim he was “dumbfounded” to have been caught up in the caper of Australia’s greatest art heist. “I thought we were going to the casino,” he said in court.

In The Mission, presenter Marc Fennell travels to Manila, London and New York, and investigates whether the late Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda ordered the old master works, or at least sought replicas to decorate their palace, which was stuffed with goods like a department store while millions of their citizens starved and endured martial law.

Marc Fennell in Manila, Phillipines

Along Mabini Street in Ermita, Manila, Fennell encounters an extraordinary industry of copyist painters capable of faithfully reproducing old master works from photographs for anyone who can pay. In London, he thumbs an old Christie’s auction catalogue of some paintings once owned by the Marcoses which provides the caveat the collection might include fakes.

Which raises the question: if the Marcoses didn’t care about amassing original masters, who did? “I think the criminals in this case were double dipping,” Fennell says. “They were going to try and make some money off copies and then try to sell the originals. I suspect this was the plan; obviously the reality is the pictures were so unbelievably damaged I don’t think they would have been sold into either a Marcos or a Marcos crony family.”

Fennell’s documentaries often step between worlds. In his 2019 series Framed he examined the 1986 theft of Picasso’s 1937 painting Weeping Woman from under the noses of security guards at the National Gallery of Victoria, which left some in the art world shattered by accusations.

The unrelated theft of the 26 old master paintings from New Norcia took place the same year, but the Australian media and public were distracted by the discovery of Azaria Chamberlain’s matinee jacket at Uluru. Fennell believes the tyranny of distance—that Western Australia is out of sight and therefore out of mind for the rest of Australia—was also responsible for the massive theft receiving comparatively little national coverage.

Marc Fennell outside the Trump tower in New York City

“Art crime reveals broader criminality, because it’s often used as an asset in other crimes, and certainly this wouldn’t be the first art crime documentary to make that observation,” says Fennell.

“Art becomes a really useful tool on the black market as a transfer of value. But stuff that is well-known can’t end up in a public gallery, unless the British empire stole it, in which case it seems fine,” he says, a tongue-in-cheek reference to his ABC TV series Stuff the British Stole, now filming its second season after being launched as a podcast, investigating pillaging by British museums.

The Mission “reveals the way art and opulence gets used by the ultra-rich, like the Marcoses”, says Fennell. The scale of the wealth astonished the presenter, who in the new documentary stands outside of the Trump Building at 40 Wall Street in Manhattan—it was once owned by the Marcoses, one of four New York buildings Ferdinand bought Imelda for a birthday.

Fennell has seen some of the old master paintings, restored and on display at the New Norcia Art Gallery. “They are beautiful,” he says. “I’m no expert on painting, by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something to be said about that era where it’s about light and colour and presented in the right way, those figures are luminous. Some of them leap out of the frames.”

The Mission premieres 8.30pm Tuesday 24 October on SBS and SBS On Demand.

Feature Words by Steve Dow