Man appeals art heist sentence

THE “Cezanne” painting at the centre of what was possibly Australia’s biggest-ever art heist is now worth $100 million, says its owner, Tweed artist John Opit.

Mr Opit, an avid art collector as well as an artist himself, has put the new figure on the value of the controversial work as the man jailed for its theft more than five years ago appealed to a Sydney court for a reduction in his sentence.

Mr Opit has consistently maintained the painting, Son in High Chair was done by French impressionist Paul Cezanne in about 1873.

Former Gold Coast man Brett Michael Williams received a five-year jail sentence including four years without parole in Lismore District Court in May last year for stealing the painting from a shed on Mr Opit’s property at Limpinwood in February 2004.

Yesterday he appealed the severity of his sentence in the NSW Court of Appeal with a decision expected to be handed down in the next few days.

The sentence was imposed after Williams was found guilty of stealing more than a dozen prized artworks including the “Cezanne” which Mr Opit at the time valued at $50 million.

The stolen paintings, including works by artists such as John Glover, Norman Lindsay and Winslow Homer, were recovered in a Gold Coast garage months later after a huge debate in the art world over whether the “Cezanne” was genuine. Mr Opit says a wide range of tests have since proven that to be the case, but art experts are certain to remain at odds over his claim.

He said the painting was now stored far from his bush art studio in a secret, secure bank vault.

“I reckon it’s now worth over $100 million,” he said.

“The more tests we do, the more it comes back as a Cezanne,” he said.

“At the moment there is absolutely no doubt.

“We have done lots of tests. We have done infra-red spectrometry; we have done UV (ultra-violet light) examinations and raked light studies where you look at Cezanne’s brush stroke.

“We have even found a date in the painting of 1873 showing through the child’s head. That showed up under extreme lighting conditions.”

“Because oil paint is quite transparent ... you can see underneath.

“It works sometimes better than UV.

“We’ve done all these tests and it keeps bouncing back as a Cezanne.”

Mr Opit said the tests had also found other clues such as the letters “PC” (for Paul Cezanne) hidden under dye in the top left hand corner of the artwork which “after 100 years has started to strike through”.

He also revealed publicly for the first time how difficult he initially found convincing police that the valuable artwork was stolen, but luckily had some images still stored on a digital camera after photo albums also allegedly disappeared.

Without the digital camera images he said he would never have had anything to show police.

At a hearing in March 2007 Lismore District Court was told while the authenticity of the “Cezanne” painting might be disputed the value of the theft of all the artworks, initially put at $67 million, was not under judgement by the court.

The court was told that some time between February 21 and 26 in 2004, Williams broke into Mr Opit’s home, stealing artwork, a matchbox collection, a laptop computer and an electric guitar.

Mr Opit had been attending a party and could not return home easily because the road was impassable due to rain.

The paintings were discovered four months later in the garage of a duplex at Robina by an elderlywoman.

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