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#journeyto100years: Paganini Boys proud of their prize

"We are together in this. No one will then be blamed. We are the Paganini Boys,” proudly claimed Kent.

One of ourcentenary contributors, local historian Glynis Cox Millett-Clay, reminds us about the Paganini Statue and the “Bold Benoni Boys”.

Meet the Paganini Boys: Morrie Nestadt, Ronnie Howie, Lionel Kent and George Walmsley, better known to Benoni as the mayor (also a member of the Provincial Council and Justice of the Peace), deputy mayor, chairperson of works and chairperson of non-European affairs.

Secretly, they laid their plans, secretly they stole away from Benoni in a municipal lorry armed with a block and tackle, not so secretly (they posed for newspaper pictures while they were doing the deed), and they uprooted the 11-foot statue and brought it back to Benoni.

The statue now stands at the Farrarmere Primary School.

Then they sat back, waiting for the Sunday newspapers to inform the world of their activities.

On Saturday night, the strain of holding back the secret nearly proved too much for the mayor who, speaking at Benoni High School, hinted that great art treasures ‘might soon be in the possession of Benoni’.

Guffaws from the front row suggested that Walmsley was the only one who understood the significance of the veiled comment.

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On Sunday, the cat was out of the bag. The City Times started investigations.

Tracing Paganini was the first task to be undertaken. He was eventually found in solitary state at the municipal works sheds, strangely out of place with sewerage pipes and machinery.

Obtaining an interview with the four “commandos” was the next step. Gathered around the distinguished (but slightly battered) feet of the 18th-century virtuoso, the councillors told their story.

We helped ourselves
“Benoni needs more art. The statue was there so we took it,” said the mayor.

“Possession is nine points of the law. It didn’t seem to belong to anybody, so we helped ourselves” added the deputy mayor, Howie.

“We have taken it into protective custody. It was getting battered by baseball balls in Bellevue,” stated Kent.
“Only the dogs will miss it,” said Walmsley.

Asked which of the four developed the idea of bringing Paganini to Benoni, Walmsley replied, “Did Hilary say who reached the top of Everest first? We are together in this. No one will then be blamed.”

“We are the Paganini Boys,” proudly claimed Kent.

“Paganini stays in Benoni,” Nestadt told the City Times, “until it is decided whether or not Benoni can keep the statue, no improvements will be made to its appearance.”

Two local cultural leaders, A Wakefield and I Goodman, would not comment on the recent acquisition. Wakefield is the chairperson of Benoni Art Society, a body of which Kent is president. Goodman is the national chairperson of FATSSA and an official of the East Rand Theatre Club.

Mr and Mrs Benoni are not so reticent in their approach to the Paganini question.

“If the Council wanted a statue, why didn’t they commission a sculptor to make a statue of a personality connected with the town,” asked R Thomas of Northmead.

“Benoni is the laughing stock of South Africa,” said W Sadler of Airfield.

“Who is this man Paganini anyway?” asked Y Moore of Western Extension.

At present, there is a hull in the sequence of events.

“Is it the calm before the storm?”

Councillors RH Howie, L Kent, M Nestadt (mayor) and G Walmsley next to the Paganini Statue. Photo: Supplied.

Biblical appearance

The reporter’s eyes followed his gaze and saw a hunk of sandstone sculpted in the vague figure of a man of biblical appearance. The heavy folds of the gown which fell to his feet were “torn” where pieces had been chipped off. Colour was added to the apparel in daubs of red and green paint.

Head slightly bowed, Paganini held a violin under his chin, but some interested person had covered the violin with pitch. Similar treatment had blacked the virtuoso’s eyes.

Tried to give it away

Sculptor Ralph Palmer, now a famous artist, was learning his profession when he lived in the Bellevue block of flats adjoining the site on which the statue was.

Source: BCT dated 1956.

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