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This outback town of Spanish monks was largely unknown – until one of Australia’s biggest art heists

The SBS Documentaries unit investigates the story of the New Norcia art heist in a three-part series, ‘The Mission’. Watch on SBS at 7.30 on Tuesday.
This story mentions sexual assault.
More than 100 km outside Perth is Australia’s only monastic town, New Norcia.
The monastery was set up in 1847 by Spanish Benedictine monks to expand the Catholic Church. Its purpose, at least initially, was to make Catholics out of Australia’s Indigenous people. A few decades later, its primary purpose shifted to prayer.
In 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found one in five Benedictine priests from New Norcia between 1950 and 2010 were alleged child abusers – triple the national average for Catholic institutions.

In the 80s, Debra Bishop, an up-and-coming young journalist based in Perth, couldn’t tell you much about its existence.

The sprawling Spanish monastery in the Western Australian outback went largely unnoticed for over a hundred years. Credit: Dean Brosche

“It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere at the time. You’d have no reason to really be there. It was not the tourist attraction it is today,” Bishop told The Feed.

It remained largely unnoticed – until it became the centre of an international plot to ransack the place.

The strangest art heist you’ve probably never heard of

As well as being home to a community of monks, the monastery at New Norcia held an impressive array of paintings – many brought out from Europe.
And it was these paintings that became the target of a bumbling heist in January 1986.
Two thieves broke into the gallery, tied up its caretaker, an older lady named Connie, and looted 26 paintings.

But it wasn’t the precise, thought-out and delicate procedure you might expect if you planned to resell “European masterpieces” on the black market.

A rolled-up picture canvas

Most of the paintings had been damaged in the robbery.

The thieves had hired a flashy, gold Ford Falcon as their getaway car and police later found they had stuffed smaller artworks straight in the back. Larger pieces were “knifed” out and rolled up when their frames wouldn’t fit in the boot.

“The brutality of the removal of these artworks from their frames was beyond belief. They had just been knifed out of the frames,” Bishop said.
“Some of them were damaged beyond repair.”

In a news report from right after the robbery, Bishop described it as possibly the best collection in the southern hemisphere.

A woman standing in front of a painting and talking

Journalist Debra Bishop was one of the first people on the scene after the heist.

The story made its way across the country, with many dumbfounded that the paintings were even in Australia, let alone housed in a small outback community.

And in the same breath, they wondered how an international group knew to set its sights on the art but still lacked caution when handling it.

It looked like the work of amateur criminals.

Putting the pieces together

Art crime expert Pamela James said the thieves made several rookie mistakes.
“They hired the snazziest golden Falcon.. and thought ‘oh, yeah let’s drive around outback Australia, and no one will notice’,” James said.
But locals did, and their tip-off about the indulgent vehicle was the start of the thieves’ undoing.
The rental car had now been returned, and investigating police found paint chips in the boot. A paper trail led authorities to a name: Nigel. And no, the name wasn’t an alias.

In a hotel room the pair stayed in, more paint chips decorated the carpet where they had tossed rolls of canvas.

A woman stands behind a large desk covered in papers

Art crime expert Pamela James said it was the most confounding heist she’d ever come across. Credit: Dean Brosche

When police raided Nigel’s house, they found some of the paintings, alongside more evidence that confirmed his involvement on the day: pictures of New Norcia, a courier receipt for the stolen paintings and the name and number of his co-accused, Noel.

There was also a number of a guy called Bruce, who admitted to coaxing Nigel into the plot with the promise of financial reward.
All three men were arrested. But some paintings were still missing – and Bruce revealed he wasn’t working alone.

The paintings were headed to Manila in the Philippines, where they would be replicated for buyers.

But there was one flaw in the plan – apart from it being left up to amateurs and the paintings never leaving the country.
“The extraordinary thing is that these works had come with the monks when the monastery was formed,” James said.
“Nobody had done any homework on the works. Because after all this happened and the works came back, and most of them were very severely damaged, they had to be assessed.”
The works went to a few laboratories, James said.
“They actually did an appraisal of them – to say, ‘Okay, what exactly are these works?'”

Some were thought to be rare pieces by the great artists Raphael, Murillo and Titian.

A woman sitting in a chair and talking.

Debra Bishop says to this day, the robbery is one of the most bizarre things she’s ever seen or covered. Credit: Dean Brosche

Instead, the experts found they were all copies.

“In terms of their meaning to that community, it doesn’t matter if they were copies or they were originals in that market … for that community, they were priceless,” James said.
The real ones are still in Europe.
Nick Lambourn, senior director at Christie’s auction house in London said of New Norcia’s art, “it’s a rather modest collection”.
“Essentially, most of the pictures are derivative. They’re copies, they’re later pictures, they’re studio pictures. They’re by followers of the great masters. And so their value is more modest.”
But nonetheless, New Norcia has become a tourist attraction, with a gallery displaying the work that inspired an international plot.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.
The SBS Documentaries unit uncovers why an art heist was left to a bunch of amateurs and who was really behind the audacious plot to smuggle these paintings out of Australia.

Watch ‘The Mission’ on SBS at 7.30 on Tuesday or on SBS On Demand.

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/article/this-australian-town-with-spanish-monks-was-unknown-to-most-until-it-was-targetted-for-a-robbery/54vstvs6p This outback town of Spanish monks was largely unknown – until one of Australia’s biggest art heists

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