Doctors Claim Sleeping Aussie Lawyer Took Paintings While "Assuming the Identity of an Art Thief"

Doctors Claim Sleeping Aussie Lawyer Took Paintings While "Assuming the Identity of an Art Thief"
Artist James Willebrant
(Courtesy Katoomba Fine Art)

Exactly what compelled Australian lawyer Michael Gerard Sullivan to steal two paintings from the Katoomba Fine Art Gallery in Leura, New South Whales, in 2008 may remain a mystery, because he claims he has no memory of the theft.

Sullivan could not, however, deny that he committed the crime because there is CCTV footage of him stealing the two paintings by Australian artist James Willebrant worth upwards of AUS$15,000 (US$15,750). The footage, obtained by Australia’s ABC News, clearly shows him handling the two paintings.


ABC News reported that Sullivan stole the paintings between courses while dining at the gallery restaurant. A statement of facts obtained by Lawyers Weekly explains that “the accused stepped back and examined the two paintings and then picked up the paintings, opened up the French doors and placed the paintings on the veranda. A driveway ran down the building on that side. The accused then went back through the restaurant and exited the premises.”

Facing up to seven years in jail, Sullivan pleaded guilty to the theft during a court appearance on the May 25th, but a conviction was not recorded because the judge recognised that he had led an exemplary life and, according to two psychiatric reports, was suffering from a case of dissociative disorder, dissociative amnesia at the time that led to him “assuming the identity of an art thief” and then forgetting that he committed the theft.

Police found the two paintings hanging in one of Sullivan’s homes in 2009 after Willebrant posted details of the theft on his website which also features a picture of the artist posing with a police officer and the two paintings after they were recovered.

According to the Better Health Victoria website, “dissociative amnesia is when a person can’t remember the details of a traumatic or stressful event, although they do realise they are experiencing memory loss. This is also known as psychogenic amnesia. This type of amnesia can last from a few days to one or more years. Dissociative amnesia may be linked to other disorders such as an anxiety disorder.”

Cleared of charges, Sullivan will return to his legal practice Leahy Lewin Nutley Sullivan in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

This article also appears on ARTINFO Australia.