The Pretoria Art Museum (image courtesy

The Pretoria Art Museum in South Africa was just the victim of a terrible robbery — but the thieves weren’t quite smart enough to take full advantage of their haul. They stole $2 million in art, but the most significant piece was left behind because it didn’t fit in their car.

Irma Stern, “Fishing Boats” (1931), one of the paintings stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum (click to enlarge) (image from the City of Tshwane via Bloomberg)

The mistake seems strange, because the thieves acted pretty professionally throughout the rest of their crime: The trio pretended to be an art teacher guiding around two students, then pulled out guns and forced museum employee Daywood Khan to guide them around to find a “shopping list” of paintings to steal, reports ABC News. These included works by famous South African artists such as expressionist Irma Stern and Gerard Sekoto, a social realist painter, as well as Maggie Laubser and Hugo Naude.

Unfortunately for the robbers but fortunately for everyone else, Stern’s “Two Malay Musicians,” the most valuable work in the museum at $1.4 million, was too big to steal. The thieves tossed it out onto the ground outside the museum, where staff rushed to its rescue. Bloomberg reports that the haul was likely the biggest art theft in the history of South Africa, and notes that it could have been motivated by skyrocketing prices for South African artists.

These paintings are so famous that they would be nearly impossible to sell, experts suggest. Perhaps, given the detail of the shopping list, some collector just wanted to keep the works as trophies and acquired them without the aid of an auction house. Isn’t it easier to go right to the source?

UPDATE:Tip leads South African police to $2 million stolen artworks hidden in cemetery” (The Independent):

An officer received a tip from an informer that led him to a private cemetery in Port Elizabeth, a city about 700 miles from Pretoria, said Brigadier Marinda Mills of the South African Police Service

There, under a bench near a memorial wall with plaques naming the dead, officers found four of the missing five pieces of art, she said.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...