In the early 20th century, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa, was just one of his many great works that hung at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Some intellectuals considered it a masterpiece but the public took no notice of this, which was why its theft was not discovered immediately. On 21 August 1911, it was stolen by one of Louvre’s employees, and the massive and, subsequently, sustained reporting of the story throughout the western world by the newspapers turned the Mona Lisa into the most famous painting in the world.
By the time it was returned in January 1914, practically the whole world was cheering. Millions thronged to see it, books were written about the theft and conspiracy theories surfaced about the masterminds—the most recent of these books was published in 2009. Years after its return to the Louvre, Jacqueline Kennedy lobbied for it to visit the United States. In New York, about 1.7 million people queued to look upon this masterpiece for just a few seconds. Even now, the Mona Lisa remains a sensation: in 2014, the Louvre had 9.3 million visitors, and the director of the Louvre estimated that 80 percent of these only want to see the Mona Lisa.
The heist of the Mona Lisa by an unremarkable employee, but, primarily, the subsequent media attention secured its position as an art icon and turned it into the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most valuable artwork in the world.
Sometime in mid-1960s, seven wooden sculptures commissioned by the Daily Mirror, from Ben Enwonwu (1917 – 1994) earlier that decade, mysteriously went missing from their headquarters in Central London. In 2012, the sculptures were found under a pile of rubbish in an old garage at the Bethnal Green Academy in East London. How the sculptures ended up at the school remains a mystery. But one theory that fits, according to the Daily Mirror, is that the statues were stolen by the notorious gangsters, The Kray Twins, and then hidden at the academy as they were impossible to sell due to their size—the Kray twins were former pupils of the school and were active in the area around the time the statues went missing. The seven statues were sold at the Bonhams auction in 2013 to a private collector.
On 3 November 2017, I attended the first day of the ART X Lagos event and the first things I saw were the seven wooden statues. I looked around and people were moving about normally; visitors were finding their way upstairs casting quick glances at the statues; there was a couple close by taking pictures. Puzzled, I sidled up to the couple to ask if these were the Daily Mirror sculptures that might have been stolen by the Kray Twins. They gave me a what-are-you-talking-about look and told me to read the information on the nearby wall. I stood star-struck, excited but confused. If this is the first time these sculptures are being presented to the public in Nigeria, as the information on the wall indicates, shouldn’t there be a big fuss about their fascinating provenance? Are we even aware of the story? Does it matter?
Provenance—an account of the ownership, custody and location of a work of art—has been adjudged an important factor to its perception (more like a person’s biography). Where the piece has been, who its various owners were, what had happened to it and where it has been exhibited all reveal something about its appeal and value. Many artworks are celebrated for their artistry, quality, beauty and the price they command because of their makers. Few have, in addition to these, newsworthy historical provenance. The theft of a piece by gangsters, no less, lends it an aura of romance and fantasy. To ignore this interesting part of the provenance of the Daily Mirror sculptures is to moderate our fascination with the works and our interest in the artist.
The theft and discovery is remarkable enough, but when you consider the suspected thieves, it becomes the stuff legends are made of. The Kray Twins, Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Kray and Reginald ‘Reggie’ Kray, were English organized crime lords in the East End of London during the 1950s and 1960s. With their gang, the Firm, they committed every crime imaginable, from arson to violent murders. Publicly, they were known as charming celebrity nightclub owners, who socialized with lords, politicians and prominent entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. They were arrested on 8 May 1968 and sentenced to life imprisonment where Ronnie died in 1995. Reggie was released on compassionate grounds in 2000, a few weeks before his death from cancer.
Coincidentally, the Kray twins invested in a construction project in Enugu in 1963 and Ronnie Kray visited Enugu several times in 1964 to check on the project—a tenuous link to the sculptures and Enwonwu, but good enough for me. The project stopped due to some bribery scandal in 1964.
Because I know these stories, I felt the awe and respect of being in the presence of great works of art. I wonder what difference it would have made if the mysterious disappearance and recovery had been publicized. And why we neglect to tell and celebrate our own stories—especially when they are newsworthy. Even the prodigal son got a party on his return.