We all know Australia is home to many iconic landmarks like the Harbour Bridge, Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef. But you may not be aware it’s also where the strangest art heist you’ve never heard of took place.
Award-winning journalist Marc Fennell is at the helm of new three-part documentary The Mission, which sees him travel all around the world to uncover the truth behind this little-known 40 year old mystery.
Involving a Spanish monastery located in outback Western Australia, several priceless paintings, and clumsy, amateur thieves, the way Marc describes the heist, it sounds like something out of an Ocean’s Eleven movie.
So how did he even find out about this bizarre story in the first place? Well, it all started with a phone call.
After wrapping the wildly successful docuseries Framed, Marc received a call from a criminologist contact who happened to mention the monastery.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m sorry, there’s a 200 year old Spanish monastery in the middle of Western Australia bush? What are you talking about?” Marc tells The Weekly.
But once he began to dig, he realised he had a great true-crime tale on his hands.
New Norcia is a Spanish monastery located about an hour’s drive from Perth. It was first founded in 1847 and today, is still home to a congregation of Benedictine monks.
And in 1986, 26 European paintings, thought to be worth millions of dollars, were stolen from New Norcia’s art gallery.
It was January 23, a scorching hot summer’s day, and two men entered the gallery in broad daylight, tied up the female caretaker, and swiftly took some of the gallery’s most prized pieces, including art by the likes of Murillo, Raphael and Titian.
But when the men got back to their gold – yes, gold; talk about conspicuous – Ford Falcon, they realised the paintings wouldn’t fit in the boot of the car… So they crudely cut them from their frames, butchering them all in the process and essentially rendering them worthless.
In The Mission, retired detective John Skeffington, who worked on the case at the time, recalls seeing the gallery filled with broken frames and remnants of torn canvases.
“They clearly hadn’t planned it that well.”
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for police to track down the gold Ford Falcon, which turned out to be a rental car that came with an extensive paper trail – the two crooks had been foolish enough to use their real names when renting it.
“These weren’t Australia’s brightest criminals, put it that way,” laughs retired detective Ken Gregson, who also worked on the case at the time, in The Mission.
After discovering the thieves names’ – Nigel and Noel – police quickly captured them and a handful of the stolen paintings were recovered from Nigel’s hotel room.
But the saga didn’t end there. As Marc told us, “This story starts weird but just gets weirder.”
During questioning, Nigel eventually cracked and revealed a bloke named Bruce was the mastermind behind the heist; Nigel and Noel were just lackeys looking for a hefty pay day.
Nigel seemed to be telling the truth; after tracking down Bruce, a mild-mannered baker with no criminal history, detectives found more of the missing paintings at his home and learnt that the rest were about to be smuggled into the Philippines.
With luck on their side, police recovered the remaining stolen pieces just hours before they were due to be hidden on a plane heading from Sydney to Manila.
By now, you’d think the story was over; all the paintings had been recovered and, while in dire need of proper restoration, they were returned to the monastery.
But that wasn’t the case; the flight to the Philippines led detectives to rethink whether Bruce the baker really was the mastermind, and whether this was an international art heist instead.
“There has to be a buyer… There must’ve been someone who ordered the paintings before the theft,” Pamela James, Australia’s foremost art crime expert, insists in the docuseries.
But who? And why? That’s what Marc has spent the last year travelling across Australia and abroad trying to find out.
“I was pulling out these tendrils,” shares Marc of his search for a mysterious international crime figure. “Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the Trump building in New York; [this investigation] sent me to very strange places.”
At this point, you’re likely thinking, ‘This crime has it all: a Spanish monastery in the remote outback filled with million-dollar artworks, a heist gone wrong thanks to two stooges travelling in an attention-drawing gold car, and a mysterious international figure pulling all the strings from overseas. Why did this story never make headlines?’
Well, if you recall, the heist kicked off in late January 1986; just before another significant news story took centre stage (and well before the internet allowed us to focus on more than one thing at a time).
“We should have been on page one, but then Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison and we were pushed back to page ten,” Ken explains.
Thankfully, The Mission is finally giving this gripping whodunit – which slowly “becomes very dark,” as Marc describes it – its time in the spotlight.
“It really is a roller coaster; I’m really hoping that people come and go for the ride,” Marc says.
The Mission premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand at 8.30pm on Tuesday October 24, with subsequent episodes releasing weekly.