Art heist paintings are ?fake

By ALEX EASTON

THE man charged with stealing a painting initially valued at more than $50 million but now described by police as a fake, was yesterday banned from entering NSW except for court appearances.

Brett Michael Williams, 44 of Southport, yesterday appeared at Mullumbimby Local Court charged with the theft of paintings, including one claimed to be by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, from a Limpinwood property in February last year.

The victim of the thefts, Limpinwood artist and art restorer John Opit claimed the paintings were worth about $67 million dollars (a claim he stands by); sparking a huge police hunt for the works, including the formation of a 10-person taskforce, code-named Euro, and the involvement of the international police-network Interpol.

However, police yesterday said they now believed the alleged Cezanne and other works claimed to be by the likes of Arthur Streeton, Norman Lindsay and Winslow Homer and valued at anywhere from $2 million to $3000 each, were fakes.

The authenticity of the paintings has been publicly questioned before by art experts, including some commissioned by police to examine the artworks, but yesterday was the first time police backed the claim.

"We were initially looking at a $67 million break and enter; now it's substantially less," Tweed-Byron duty officer, Acting Inspector Brett Greentree said yesterday.

Insp Greentree would not say what police believed the likely value of the paintings were.

However, he said he did not believe the level of resources poured into the investigation had been wasted.

Brett Williams yesterday became the first person to face court as a result of the taskforce, appearing on a single count of break enter and steal.

The case drew a media crowd of 17 to the small courthouse, where Magistrate Barry Bright granted Williams bail and ordered him to appear at Lismore Local Court on April 12. Prosecutor Peter Costin-Nielsen did not oppose bail, but Mr Bright ordered a $2000 surety, offered by the grey-suited Williams through his solicitor Owen Hughes, be put up for the bail.

Mr Bright also ordered, as further bail conditions, that Williams surrender his passport, report regularly to Southport Police, stay away from other people involved in the case, and stay out of NSW unless attending court. No reason was given for banning Williams from NSW.



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