Police claim stolen painting a fake
March 18, 2005 Source: The Courier-Mail
By Greg Stolz
POLICE yesterday dismissed a so-called $50 million Cezanne masterpiece as a cheap fake and did not rule out charging its owner, eccentric northern NSW art restorer John Opit, with hindering investigations into the painting's theft.
Gold Coast financial consultant Brett Michael Williams, 44, faced Mullumbimby Local Court charged with stealing the "Cezanne" and other paintings from Opit's home at Limpinwood, near Murwillumbah, in February last year.
The theft was described at the time as Australia's biggest art heist, with the paintings claimed by Mr Opit to be worth $67 million.
The paintings – which included one entitled Son in a High Chair alleged to have been painted by French impressionist Paul Cezanne – were recovered from a Robina duplex last June.
But Tweed-Byron police Acting Inspector Brett Greentree said experts consulted, including international art dealers Sothebys, had determined that the paintings were not genuine.
"Look, we do not believe at this stage (the value of the paintings) is over $100,000," Insp Greentree said.
He said the investigation had consumed a significant amount of police time and resources and would not rule out charges against Opit, who yesterday continued to insist the paintings were genuine.
Williams, whom Opit claimed was an associate of one of his clients, was described by police as a financial consultant.
But, according to a bank statement tendered to the court to support his ability to put up a surety, he had only $7.06 in his bank account.
He was released on bail on a $2000 surety, posted by his wife, on conditions including that he report daily to Southport police, surrender his passport and not enter NSW except for court appearances.
Williams was remanded to appear in Lismore Court on April 12.
Mr Opit said he believed one of his clients had masterminded the robbery and third person was involved.
He said he planned to take the "Cezanne" to London later this year to have it authenticated by international art experts.