Cézanne, titled Son in a High Chair.
Cézanne, titled Son in a High Chair.

Art thief seeks cut in jail time

A THIEF convicted of one of Australia’s most notorious art heists appealed against the severity of his sentence in the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal this week.

Brett Michael Williams, 48, was sentenced in May last year to a maximum five years’ jail for his part in the heist, which targeted a studio at Limpinwood, near Murwillumbah.

Williams, a tree-lopper from the Gold Coast, was originally sentenced to a minimum of three years and nine months at the Grafton Correctional Centre after the heist.

The decision on his appeal was reserved and will be handed down in 2010.

One of the dozens of works stolen in the heist included a painting allegedly by French impressionist Paul Cézanne which the owner, John Opit, now says is worth around $100 million.

Other works by artists such as John Glover, Norman Lindsay and Winslow Homer were also stolen and were recovered in a Gold Coast garage months later.

Police and many art experts dispute the authenticity of the Cézanne, titled Son in a High Chair, including art historian and publisher Lou Keplac who, at the time of the 2004 theft, was reported as describing the likelihood of such a work being held in Northern NSW as like ‘finding a crocodile in the Antarctic’.

However, Mr Opit remains convinced of the bona fides of the painting and continues to fight to have it recognised by the art world.

“After the theft I rang Sotheby’s in Melbourne to see who they would suggest (to verify the work),” he said.

“All the directors happened to be together in a board meeting at the time and they all agreed I would have to take it overseas.

But if I took it into France I wouldn’t be allowed to take it out again. It’s much like Aboriginal art and artefacts here.”

Mr Opit said that is why he started the authentication process in Australia.

He has commissioned UV florescence and infra red tests at Melbourne University that did not confirm or deny the validity of the paintings, but two tests he conducted – a raked light photography test and a luminescence test – dated the work at 1873.

Mr Opit has also researched and written an extended paper on the painting’s authenticity he plans to publish and distribute to all the world’s galleries with a major Cézanne collection, including the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“I’ve found out things about Cézanne that nobody knows about,” he said.

“After that I will take the painting overseas for final authentication.

“There’s a guy by the name of Sercini at Sotheby’s in Italy that I trust.”

The work is held in a secret, secure bank vault.

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