A man who once served as a bodyguard to former Free State premier Ace Magashule has been described as a “deceitful man” and “manipulative” by the State.
Ricardo Mettler is on trial for theft, fraud, money laundering, uttering, forgery and defeating the ends of justice – charges in a case that centres around the theft of a JH Pierneef painting worth millions.
During his trial, Mettler’s defence claimed Magashule, now the secretary-general of the ANC, gave the artwork to him as a gift.
The painting was allegedly removed from a safe in Magashule’s office in March 2018.
It depicts a mountainous landscape in Free State. The undated Pierneef belongs to the Free State government.
Arts24 previously reported that since Pierneef was considered to be one of South Africa’s old masters, the painting was valued at approximately R8 million when it went missing two years ago.
On Monday, during closing arguments, advocate Antoinette Ferreira, for the State, told the court that Mettler should be convicted on a litany of charges, including making false statements in an affidavit.
Several witnesses, including Magashule, had already testified in the matter. The defence team did not call any witnesses.
Netwerk24 previously reported that Mettler maintained that Magashule had given him the painting, and other gifts, when he vacated the premier’s office. He also said he initially did not pay attention to the painting in its golden frame.
He also reportedly said the painting was among the pile of goods that Magashule donated to him, adding that he later realised that it was valuable.
He also said had he known it was a state asset, he would not have taken it.
But on Monday, Ferreira disputed this claim. She said the State believed Mettler stole the painting “for self enrichment”.
She also said the accused had apparently told the former premier that “a painting is a painting unless you are interested”.
She submitted that Mettler wanted to make a quick R6 million to R8 million if it sold at auction.
Ferreira also said: “He failed to enquire from Mr Magashule if it was indeed a gift.”
She also believed that Mettler was the one who removed the barcode from the painting. “He worked in the premier’s office for six years; he knew what a barcode is,” she said.
“Only the accused can explain the gift defence, but yet he elected to remain silent,” the advocate said.
“We pray that the court will convict the accused.” According to the State’s summary of substantial facts, the Pierneef painting was registered in the assertion register of the Premier of the Free State with a silver barcode attached to it on the back of the painting.
The painting was also framed with a gold coloured wooden frame and registered on the asset list of the office by Mr JA Botes in room 430.
However, Botes was no longer an employee due to ill health, according to the State, adding the painting was in the office since 2014 to May 2017.
In March 2018, when Magashule vacated office, he “instructed some of his immediate officials to remove and take for themselves all items that belonged to him and to leave behind the property of the Free State provincial government”.
The State further said that in the same month, a Mr Wei-Lun Hsu, met with Mettler and the accused wanted to borrow R2.1 million, offering the painting as surety.
He apparently told Wei-Lun the painting was worth a lot of money. Wei-Lun approached auction house Strauss & Co to inquire about the painting’s origin, value and ownership.
The auction house then drew attention to the work by including an image of the painting in an advertisement for an upcoming auction. Strauss & Co was notified by an art buyer, who was familiar with the provincial government’s collection, that the painting could have been stolen.
During closing arguments, Ferreira said it’s the State’s case that Mettler was not “not upfront and honest”, also mentioning that the storeroom key, where the painting was kept went missing.
“Why would the key go missing?” she asked, alleging that Mettler locked the door in an attempt to “hinder the speedy recovery of the painting”.
Meanwhile, advocate Jacques Potgieter, for the accused, said that from the very start his client was forthcoming with his version of events.
He said, indeed at some point a barcode was attached, but one could not say when it was attached and also removed. He also spoke about the evidence of two witnesses who, he said, could not say what the back of the painting looked like.
He also touched on the alleged missing storeroom key. Potgieter said: “If we were to believe [the] storeroom key was missing, it would have been noticed that Pierneef is missing when the locksmith changed the locks.”
Potgieter also said when he gave the painting to Strauss & Co, his client never asked the company not to investigate.
And when he was told the company would be advertising it widely, Mettler never said “please stop the process and give me my painting back”.
“There is no proof he tried to sell the painting clandestinely or went to a black market. He went straight to Strauss and Co… and that, I would submit, that he did not have knowledge of wrongfulness.”
He said, the value of the painting was known, but that did not mean his client knew it was government property.
“The accused did not know it was government property,” he said, adding the court can’t find him guilty of theft and the other charges.
Judgment was expected to be delivered later this week.