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The Case Of The Missing Mandela

The hunt is on for a painting of Nelson Mandela stolen from a vault by thieves through a hole in the roof. Interpol say the painting is priceless following a heist that could’ve come straight out of a movie.

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It wasn’t your ordinary art theft. Whoever stole South African artist Conor Mccreedy’s painting of Nelson Mandela had a strange way of doing it.

Mccreedy was on his way to fetch the painting from a vault in New York. As he entered the vault he noticed a four-foot hole in the ceiling. He thought it was strange considering the ceiling was one meter thick concrete. He guessed that the company must be doing maintenance on the building. He then found a broken lock. What he saw inside stunned him.

“There in my storage room, in place of my painting, was a pile of original photographs of Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Mick Jagger from the sixties on the Hampton River… It was like a scene out of a movie.”

Mccreedy’s painting of Mandela, along with a sketchbook of 30 drawings, were gone. A few hours later, his storage room was ringed with yellow tape.

“We had the CIA, CSI, FBI and Interpol all there. It was the first time meeting Frank Shea, my private investigator; he literally could have walked out of a movie. Shea had this comb over and perfect hair, with a perfect red tie and a pinstripe suit complete with Mont Blanc pen, like Donnie Brasco or 007. Then I thought to myself this must be a joke,” he says.

It wasn’t. No one could answer the riddle of Lennon and Jagger either. It was June and at the time Mandela was sick. Mccreedy thought the heist had something to do with hate mail, most of it from South Africa, claiming his portrait was merely jumping on the band wagon.

“People were running me down, saying I was a con. It was sad. But every time I get a negative comment my art goes up in value. Why do it if you hate my art? If you hate my childlike blue splash? It took me 27 years to do that blue splash,” he says.

The next day; it got worse. At 6AM, New York time, Mccreedy’s insurance company phoned him. The painting was insured in Africa, not New York. The only thing to do was for Mccreedy to fly back to South Africa, knock on the door of the art collector who bought the painting and buy it back with an envelope containing R100,000 ($9,280).

“It wasn’t even my favorite piece. I did it in Europe in 2008… The painting was in my trademark MccreedyBlue on a A4 canvas board, but that was it,” he says.

The robbery made headlines around the world and the story was just beginning. Interpol, the international criminal police organization, declared the missing artwork was priceless; it gave Mccreedy a claim to be the only living artist to have a painting declared priceless.

Almost a year later, clues are as elusive as the painting itself. The artist has found a way to recoup the loss. Mccreedy is now selling 46664 replica prints, the same as Mandela’s prison number, for $100 each. Five percent goes to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg.

It’s just one of the bizarre stops along the way for Mccreedy, who was born and bred in Johannesburg and making a name for himself in New York. At school he was a talented footballer whose trademark was scoring from corner kicks. There he had a chance meeting with Mandela that changed his life.

“When I was eleven I had the opportunity to meet Mandela personally. Out of a hall filled with 600 school boys he chose to speak to me. I’ll never forget it. He said to me ‘you have powerful eyes, use them’. Mandela and Picasso are my greatest inspirations,” Mccreedy says.

New York didn’t start well for Mccreedy. He was broke and dropped out of Art College when blind chance landed his first solo exhibition.

“I bought an old third-hand Iranian carpet at a store and I needed someone to help me move it. So we went to my studio, a four-flight walk up the stairs, and the man helping me comes up and sees all this art that I’m working on, adorned on my walls, and he’s like: ‘This stuff is crazy! You know what? You’ve got to meet someone.’”

The carpet carrier knew the curator at the National Arts Club, in Manhattan, just down the road. It resulted in Mccreedy’s first ever exhibition sold out two days before the opening. What’s more his former lecturers from art school, who had written him off, came to the opening and were impressed, Mccreedy says.

These days Mccreedy is no longer a struggling artist. His art is selling from Africa to Asia. On the morning of meeting FORBES AFRICA in March, he sold a painting for $33,000.

“Art is an investment and can bring in big business. Art auctions in South Africa sell for R450 million ($42 million) a year, but I’ve seen auctions in New York sell for that in one night. People haven’t realized the opportunities art can bring,” he says.

Clearly Mccreedy has.

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