Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ripped from the Walls (and the Headlines)

By Robert M. Poole

www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2005/july/ripped.

At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day stragglers wobbled home for the night, a buzzer sounded inside the IsabellaStewartGardnerMuseum. One of two hapless museum guards answered it, saw what he thought were two Boston policemen outside the Palace Road entrance, and opened the door on the biggest art theft in U.S. history.

The intruders, who had apparently filched the uniforms, overpowered the guards and handcuffed them. They wrapped the guards’ heads in duct tape, leaving nose holes for breathing, and secured the men to posts in the basement. After disarming the museum’s video cameras, the thieves proceeded to take apart one of this country’s finest private art collections, one painstakingly assembled by the flamboyant Boston socialite Isabella Gardner at the end of the 19th century and housed since 1903 in the Venetian-style palazzo she built to display her treasures “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

But as the poet Robert Burns warned long ago, the best laid schemes of mice and men “gang aft agley”—an insight no less applicable to heiresses. Less than a century elapsed before Mrs. Gardner’s high-minded plans for eternity began to crumble. Up a flight of marble stairs on the second floor, the thieves went to work in the Dutch Room, where they yanked one of Rembrandt’s earliest (1629) self-portraits off the wall. They tried to pry the painted wooden panel out of its heavy gilded frame, but when Rembrandt refused to budge, they left him on the floor, a little roughed up but remarkably sturdy at age 376. They crossed worn brown tiles to the south side of the room and cut two other Rembrandts out of their frames, including the Dutch master’s only known seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (opposite), and a double portrait titled A Lady and Gentleman in Black (Table of Contents, p. 6). From an easel by the windows, they lifted The Concert (p. 97), a much-loved oil by Johannes Vermeer, and a Govaert Flinck landscape, long thought to have been painted by Rembrandt, whose monogram had been forged on the canvas. Before the intruders departed, they snapped up a bronze Chinese beaker from the Shang era (1200-1100 b.c.) and a Rembrandt etching, a self-portrait the size of a postage stamp.

A hundred paces down the corridor and through two galleries brimming with works by Fra Angelico, Bellini, Botticelli and Raphael, the thieves stopped in a narrow hallway known as the Short Gallery. There, under the painted gaze of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, they helped themselves to five Degas drawings. And in a move that still baffles most investigators, they tried to wrestle a flag of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from its frame and, failing, settled for its bronze eagle finial. Then, back on the ground floor, the thieves made one last acquisition, a jaunty Manet oil portrait of a man in a top hat, titled Chez Tortoni (p. 103). By some miracle, they left what is possibly the most valuable painting in the collection, Titian’s Europa, untouched in its third-floor gallery

The raiders’ leisurely assault had taken nearly 90 minutes. Before departing the museum that night, they left the guards with a promise: “You’ll be hearing from us in about a year.”

But the guards never heard a word, and 16 years later the case remains unsolved, despite wide-ranging probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assists from Scotland Yard, museum directors, friendly dealers, Japanese and French au- thorities, and a posse of private investigators; despite hundreds of interviews and new offers of immunity; despite the Gardner Museum’s promise of a $5 million reward; despite a coded message the museum flashed to an anonymous tipster through the financial pages of the Boston Globe; despite oceans of ink and miles of film devoted to the subject; despite advice from psychics and a tip from an informant who claims that one of the works, Vermeer is rumbling around in a trailer in the West of Ireland to avoid detection.

There have been enough false sightings of the paintings— in furniture stores, seedy antiques marts and tiny apartments— to turn Elvis green with envy. In the most tantalizing of these, a Boston Herald reporter was driven to a warehouse in the middle of the night in 1997 to see what purported to be Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The reporter, Tom Mashberg, had been covering the theft and was allowed to view the painting briefly by flashlight. When he asked for proof of authenticity, he was given a vial of paint chips that were later confirmed by experts to be Dutch fragments from the 17th century—but not from the Rembrandt seascape. Then the painting, whether real or fake, melted from view again. Since then, there has been no sign of the missing works, no arrests, no plausible demands for ransom. It is as if the missing stash—now valued as high as $500 million— simply vanished into the chilly Boston night, swallowed up in the shadowy world of stolen art.

That world, peopled by small-time crooks, big-time gangsters, unscrupulous art dealers, convicted felons, money launderers, drug merchants, gunrunners and organized criminals, contributes to an underground market of an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion a year. While the trade in stolen art does not rival the black market in drugs and guns, it has become a significant part of the illicit global economy.

Some 160,000 items—including paintings, sculptures and other cultural objects—are currently listed by the Art Loss Register, an international organization established in 1991 to track lost or stolen art around the world. Among the objects on their list today are the 13 items snatched from the GardnerMuseum as well as 42 other Rembrandt paintings, 83 Rembrandt prints and an untitled painting attributed to Vermeer that has been missing since World War II. The register records more than 600 stolen Picassos and some 300 Chagalls, most of them prints. An additional 10,000 to 12,000 items are added each year, according to Alexandra Smith, operations director for the London-based registry, a company financed by insurers, leading auction houses, art dealers and trade associations.

Such registries, along with computer-based inventories maintained by the FBI and Interpol, the international police agency, make it virtually impossible for thieves or dealers to sell a purloined Van Gogh, Rembrandt or any other wellknown work on the open market. Yet the trade in stolen art remains a brisk one.

In recent years, big-ticket paintings have become a substitute for cash, passing from hand to hand as collateral for arms, drugs or other contraband, or for laundering money from criminal enterprises. “It would appear that changes in the banking laws have driven the professional thieves into the art world,” says Smith of the Art Loss Register. “With tighter banking regulations, it has become difficult for people to put big chunks of money in financial institutions without getting noticed,” she explains. “So now thieves go out and steal a painting.”

Although the theft of a Vermeer or a Cézanne may generate the headlines, the illicit art market is sustained by amateurs and minor criminals who grab targets of opportunity— the small, unspectacular watercolor, the silver inkstand, the antique vase or teapot—most from private homes.These small objects are devilishly hard to trace, easy to transport and relatively painless to fence, though the returns are low. “If you have three watercolors worth £3,000,” Smith says, “you are likely to get only £300 for them on the black market.” Even so, that market brings more money to thieves than stolen radios, laptops and similar gear. “Electronics have become so affordable that the market for them has dried up,” Smith adds, “and those who go after these things have learned that art is better money than computers.”


Smith and others who track stolen art are clearly irritated by the public’s misconception that their world is populated by swashbucklers in black turtlenecks who slip through skylights to procure paintings for secretive collectors. “I’m afraid it’s a lot more mundane than that,” says Lynne Richardson, former manager of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team. “Most things get stolen without much fanfare. In museums it’s usually somebody with access who sees something in storage, thinks it’s not being used and walks off with it.”

Glamorous or not, today’s art crooks are motivated by a complex of urges. In addition to stealing for the oldest reason of all—money—they may also be drawn by the thrill of the challenge, the hope of a ransom, the prospect of leverage in plea bargaining and the yearning for status within the criminal community. A few even do it for love, as evidenced by the case of an obsessed art connoisseur named Stephane Breitwieser. Before he was arrested in 2001, the French waiter went on a seven-year spree in Europe’s museums, amassing a collection valued as high as $1.9 billion. He reframed some of the works, cleaned them up and kept them in his mother’s small house in eastern France; there, according to court testimony, he would close the door and glory in his private collection, which included works by Bruegel, Watteau, Boucher and many others. He never sold a single piece. Finally collared in Switzerland for stealing an old bugle, he attempted suicide in jail when informed that his mother had destroyed some of his paintings to hide his crimes. Breitwieser spent two years jailed in Switzerland before being extradited to France, where he was sentenced to a 26- month prison term in January 2005.

What continues to perplex those investigating the Gardner mystery is that no single motive or pattern seems to emerge from the thousands of pages of evidence gathered over the past 15 years. Were the works taken for love, money, ransom, glory, barter, or for some tangled combination of them all? Were the raiders professionals or amateurs? Did those who pulled off the heist hang on to their booty, or has it passed into new hands in the underground economy? “I would be happy to knock it down to one or two theories,” says FBI special agent Geoffrey J. Kelly, who has been in charge of the Gardner investigation for three years. He acknowledges that the bureau has left the book open on a maddening array of possibilities, among them: that the Gardner theft was arranged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to raise money or to bargain for the release of jailed comrades; that it was organized by James J. “Whitey” Bulger, who was Boston’s ruling crime boss and a top-echelon FBI informant at the time of the heist; that it was inspired by Myles J. Connor Jr., an aging rocker who performed with Roy Orbison before he gained fame as New England’s leading art thief.


Connor, who claims to have pulled off no less than 30 art thefts in his career, was in jail when the GardnerMuseum was raided; but he boasts that he and a now deceased friend, Bobby Donati, cased the place several years before, and that Donati did the deed. Connor came forward after the museum increased its reward from $1 million to $5 million in 1997, saying he could find the missing artwork in exchange for immunity, part of the reward and release from prison. Authorities considered but ultimately rejected his offer. Connor believes that the Gardner spoils have passed into other, unknown hands. “I was probably told, but I don’t remember,” he says, citing a heart attack that affected his memory


Some investigators speculate that the theft may have been carried out by amateurs who devoted more time to planning the heist than they did to marketing the booty; when the goods got too hot to handle, they may have panicked and destroyed everything. It is a prospect few wish to consider, but it could explain why the paintings have gone unseen for so long. It would also be a depressingly typical denouement: most art stolen in the United States never reappears—the recovery rate is estimated to be less than 5 percent. In Europe, where the problem has been around longer and specialized law enforcement agencies have been in place, it is about 10 percent

Meanwhile, the FBI has managed to eliminate a few lines of inquiry into the Gardner caper. The two guards on duty at the time of the theft were interviewed and deemed too unimaginative to have pulled it off; another guard, who disappeared from work without picking up his last paycheck, had other reasons to skip town in a hurry; a former museum director who lived in the Gardner, entertaining visitors at all hours, was also questioned. He died of a heart attack in 1992, removing himself from further interrogation. Agents also interviewed a bumbling armored truck robber, as well as an exconvict from California who arrived in Boston before the theft and flew home just after it, disguised as a woman; it turned out that he had been visiting a mistress.

Special agent Kelly offers a tight smile: “There have been a lot of interesting stories associated with the case,” he says. “We try to investigate every one that seems promising.” Just the week before, in fact, he had traveled to Paris with another agent to probe rumors that a former chief of the financially troubled entertainment conglomerate Vivendi Universal had acquired the Gardner paintings, an allegation the official denies.

“In a bank robbery or an armored car robbery, the motivation is fairly easy to decipher,” says Kelly. “They want the money. The motivation in an art theft can be much more difficult to figure out.” The Gardner thieves were professional in some ways, amateurish in others: spending 90 minutes inside the museum seems unnecessarily risky, but the way they got in was clever. “It shows good planning,” says Kelly. “They had the police uniforms. They treated the guards well. That’s professional.” The thieves also knew the museum well enough to recognize that its most famous paintings were in the Dutch Room. Once there, though, they betrayed a bushleague crudeness in slashing the paintings from their frames, devaluing them in the process. “Given that they were in the museum for an hour and a half, why did they do that?” Kelly wonders.

And what of the wildly uneven range of works taken? “There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it,” he adds. Why bother with the Degas sketches? “And to overlook Titian’s Europa? And to spend such an inordinate amount of time trying to get the Napoleonic flag off the wall and then to settle for the finial?”

Perhaps most telling—and in some ways most unsettling— is the ominous silence since March 18, 1990. Kelly believes, and most other investigators agree, that the long hush suggests professional thieves who moved their stash with efficiency and who now control it with disciplined discretion. If the thieves had been amateurs, Kelly posits, “somebody would have talked by now or somehow those paintings would have turned up.”

It is not unusual for art thieves to hang on to prominent paintings for a few years, allowing time for the public excitement and investigative fervor to fade, for the artwork to gain in value and for both federal and state statutes of limitation to run their course. As a result of the Gardner case, Senator Edward M. Kennedy introduced the “Theft of Major Artwork” provision to the 1994 Crime Act, a new law making it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object more than 100 years old and worth $5,000 or more; the law also covers any object worth at least $100,000, regardless of its age, and prohibits possession of such objects if the owner knows them to be stolen. Even with such laws in force, the FBI’s Kelly says that some criminals keep paintings indefinitely as an investment against future trouble and to bargain down charges against them, or, as he puts it, as a get-out-ofjail- free card.


“It’s quite possible the paintings are still being held as collateral in an arms deal, a drug deal or some other criminal venture,” says Dick Ellis, a prominent investigator who retired in 1999 from Scotland Yard’s highly regarded Art and Antiques Unit. “Until the debt is paid off, they will remain buried. That is why nobody has heard of the paintings for 15 years. That is a long time, but it may be a big debt.”

Wherever the paintings may be, GardnerMuseum director Anne Hawley hopes that they are being well cared for. “It is so important that the art is kept in safe condition,” she says. “The works should be kept at a steady humidity of 50 percent—not more or less—and a steady temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They need a stable environment,” she adds, sounding like the concerned mother of a kidnapped child. “They should be kept away from light and they should be wrapped in acid-free paper.” While it is common practice for art thieves to roll up canvases for easy transport, Hawley pleads that the works be unrolled for storage to avoid flaking or cracking the paint. “Otherwise the paintings will be compromised and their value decreased. The more repainting that needs to be done when they are returned, the worse it will be for the integrity of the paintings.” (The museum had no theft insurance at the time of the heist, largely because the premiums were too high. Today the museum has not only insurance but an upgraded security and fire system.)


Like others who work in the palace Isabella Gardner built, Hawley, who had been on the job for just five months at the time of the theft, takes the loss personally. “For us, it’s like a death in the family,” she says. “Think of what it would mean to civilization if you could never hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony again. Think if you lost access to a crucial piece of literature like Plato’s Republic. Removing these works by Rembrandt and Vermeer is ripping something from the very fabric of civilization.”

In 1998—eight years into the investigation—Hawley and all of Boston woke up to the news that the local FBI office had been corrupted by a long partnership with Whitey Bulger, the crime boss and FBI informant who had been a suspect all along. Because Bulger and his associates had helped the FBI bring down Boston’s leading Italian crime family (which incidentally opened up new turf for Bulger), he was offered protection. Bulger happily took advantage of the opportunity to expand his criminal empire, co-opting some of his FBI handlers in the process. Abureau supervisor took payments from him, and a star agent named John Connolly warned him of impending wiretaps and shielded him from investigation by other police agencies


When an honest prosecutor and a grand jury secretly charged Bulger in 1995 with racketeering and other crimes, Connolly tipped Bulger that an arrest was imminent, and the gangster skipped town. He has been on the run ever since. Connolly is now serving a ten-year prison sentence for conspiring with Bulger, and some 18 agents have been implicated in the scandal. As new details emerged in court proceedings, begun in 1998, the charges against Bulger have multiplied to include conspiracy, extortion, money laundering and 18 counts of murder.





http://www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2005/july/ripped.php?page=1

Against this sordid background, it is easy to understand why some critics remain skeptical about the bureau’s ability to solve the case. “Their investigation was possibly corrupted and compromised from the start,” says the Gardner’s Hawley. “We assumed that things were proceeding according to schedule—then this came up!” While she praises Geoffrey Kelly as a diligent investigator and allows that the FBI’s Boston office has cleaned itself up, she has taken the remarkable step of inviting those with information about the Gardner theft to contact her—not the FBI. “If people are afraid to step forward or hesitant to speak with the FBI, I encourage them to contact me directly, and I will promise anonymity,” she says. “I know that there’s a child, a mother, a grandmother, or a lover—someone out there—who knows where the pieces are. Anyone who knows this has an ethical and moral responsibility to come forward.The most important thing is to get the art back, not to prosecute the people who took it.”

With that, at least, the FBI’s Kelly agrees. “The primary importance is to get the paintings back,” he says. “The secondary importance is to know where they’ve been since March 18, 1990. We want to get the message out that there is a $5 million reward, that the U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts has stated that he would entertain immunity negotiations for the return of the paintings. The reward, coupled with the immunity offer, really make this a good time to get these paintings back to the museum, where they belong.”

Meanwhile, the specter of Whitey Bulger continues to haunt the case. Just outside Kelly’s office, a photograph of the gangster hangs on the bureau’s Ten Most Wanted list. The possibility of Bulger’s complicity “has been around since day one,” says Kelly. “But we haven’t come across any evidence relevant to that theory.”

Might rogue agent John Connolly have tipped Bulger off about the Gardner investigation? “I am not aware of that,” Kelly answers


With or without Connolly’s involvement, there have been reports that two Bulger associates—Joseph Murray of Charleston and Patrick Nee of South Boston—claimed they had access to the stolen paintings in the early 1990s. Both Murray and Nee, who were convicted in 1987 of attempting to smuggle guns from New England to the Irish Republican Army, have been linked to the Gardner theft by informants, but Kelly says that no evidence supports those claims. Murray is dead now, shot by his wife in 1992. And Nee, who returned to South Boston on his release from prison in 2000, denies any involvement in the theft.

“The paintings are in the West of Ireland,” says British investigator Charles Hill, “and the people holding them are a group of criminals—about the hardest, the most violent and the most difficult cases you are ever likely to encounter. They have the paintings, and they don’t know what to do with them. All we need to do is convince them to return them. I see that as my job.” Although Hill stresses that his comments are speculative, they are informed by his knowledge of the case and the characters involved.

It would be easy to dismiss Charles Hill were it not for his experience and his track record at solving hard-to-crack art cases. The son of an English mother and an American father, Hill went to work as a London constable in 1976 and rose to the rank of detective chief inspector in Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit. After a 20-year career at the yard, he retired and became a private investigator specializing in stolen art. He has been involved in a string of high-profile cases, helping to recover Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which had been missing for seven years; Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid; Goya’s Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate; and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, among other works. (Another version of The Scream, stolen from Oslo’s MunchMuseum last year, is still missing.)


Hill believes that the Gardner paintings arrived in Ireland sometime between 1990 and 1995, shipped there by none other than Whitey Bulger. “Being extremely clever, knowing that he could negotiate the paintings for money or for a bargaining chip, he took them,” says Hill. “Only Bulger could have done it at the time. Only Bulger had the bureau protecting him. Moving the pictures was easy—most probably in a shipping container with no explosives or drugs for a dog to sniff. He thought Ireland meant safety for him and the museum’s stuff.”

But Bulger had not bargained on being charged with multiple murders, which made him less than welcome in Ireland’s West Country and helpless to bargain down the charges against him. “He went to Ireland hoping to hide out there,” says Hill. “When they threw him out, they hung on to his things, not knowing what to do with them.”

Hill says he is in delicate negotiations that may lead him to the Irish group holding the paintings. “I have someone who says he can arrange for me to visit them,” he explains. “If you will forgive me, I would rather not tell you their names right now.” Hill adds that the group, while not part of the IRA, has links with it.


A few scraps of evidence support an Irish connection. On the night of the theft—St. Patrick’s Day—one of the intruders casually addressed a guard as “mate,” as in: “Let me have your hand, mate.” Hill thinks it unlikely that a Boston thug or any other American would use that term; it would more likely come from an Irishman, Australian or Briton. Hill also connects the eclectic array of objects stolen to the Irish love of the horse. Most of the Degas sketches were equestrian subjects, “an iconic Irish image,” he says. As for the Napoleonic flag, they settled for the finial—perhaps as a tribute of sorts to the French general who tried to link up with Irish rebels against Britain


So in Hill’s view, all roads lead to Ireland. “It’s awful for the FBI,” he says. “When the paintings are found here, it is going to be another terrible embarrassment for them. It will show that Whitey pulled off the largest robbery of a museum in modern history—right under their noses.” Hill pauses for a moment.
“Don’t be too hard on them, now.”



Back in Mrs. Gardner’s museum, the crowds come and go. On a late winter day, sunlight splashes the mottled pink walls of the palazzo’s inner court, where orchids bloom and schoolchildren sit with their sketchbooks, serenaded by water tumbling into an old stone pool placed there by Isabella Stewart Gardner. In her instructions for the museum that bears her name, she decreed that within the marble halls of her palace, each Roman statue, each French tapestry, each German silver tankard, each folding Japanese screen, and each of the hundreds of glorious paintings she loved so well should remain forever just as she had left them


That is why today, upstairs on the second floor in the Dutch Room, where Rembrandt’s roughed up 1629 self-portrait has been returned to its rightful place on the north wall, the painter stares out across the room, his eyes wide and brows arched, regarding a ghastly blank space where his paintings ought to be. All that’s left are the empty frames.
FBI Collusion Prevents Stolen Vermeer "The Concert" Being Recovered Summer 2002, Dublin, Ireland

Dear Alex Jones, infowars,

please find below my latest efforts in trying to recover the stolen Vermeer from Boston.


Dick Ellis, ex head of Scotland Yards Art Squad, mentioned below, has been using Brig Gordon Kerr as his man with Irish experience to try and convince those with the Vermeer to hand it back.

I am sure your new contributor, an expert on the seedier side of the Irish Republican movement, especially those who have been duplicitous, to say the least, can enlighten you to Gordon Kerr's history.

The direct control of the stolen Vermeer being held by Thomas Slab Murphy has been confirmed by three sources of mine, three from Dick Ellis, Brigadier Gordon Kerr, Peter Watson the art crime writer and one other.

Three sources of Charlie Hill, Jimmy Johnson, David Dudon, and one other in America have also confirmed that Thomas Slab Murphy has control of the Vermeer from his South Armagh enclave.

All of these sources also confirm that the FBI are continuing to be complicit in pursuing Whitey Bulger, however, when Bob Mueller retires the impetus may increase, although the FBI would relish the death of Whitey Bulger in exile.

Whitey Bulger has been writing a diary about his criminal life and if this can be retrieved from the safety deposit box, (Whitey may try and get it to his family), it will finally expose the real truth of the FBI collusion in Boston and beyond.


Whitey Bulger has always maintained that if he is captured he will never make a courtroom, he will be murdered before he gets to tell the truth about how deep the FBI collusion went, and still goes.

27 E-mails sent to FBI Headquarters about the dealings with Whitey Bulger, they knew all along about Whitey Bulger's murderous crime spree.

Feel free to drop a dime to the Feds, ask for their comment on Mike Wilson and how he allowed the stolen Vermeer to escape.

Your attention in this will be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely



Copy of E-mails sent to President, Vice- President, Ted Kennedy, Peter King, Anne Hawley (Director, Gardner Museum, Boston)

Dear Mr President,

Oh what webs they weave, in your name!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The FBI Actions in the Gardner and Whitey Bulger cases appear to be a case of

"The Foxes guarding the hen house"

After consulting with certain law enforcement officials in Europe and within the U.S. my assessment, based upon their opinions, is perhaps it may be time for FBI Director Robert Mueller to retire.

Your consideration in this matter is greatly appreciated.

A job for KR!!!!!!!!


Yours






Gardner Art Heist Latest


Dear Anne,
I am known by the name ************ and appear alongside the late Harold Smith in the film Stolen.

Although FBI Agent Mike Wilson described me to you as "Not being a credible witness" in 2002, this was because Dick Ellis and I had met him at the London American Embassy and were not very happy at FBI Agent Mike Wilson's failure to secure the Vermeer from the Dublin hotel room where it was shown to him and Colin (the informant)

I am sure you have not been made aware of the blatant failure of FBI Agent Michael Wilson to recover the Vermeer in summer 2002 and I do want you to know of my continuing efforts to bring the Vermeer home to Boston.

I have been negotiating with the IRA, namely Thomas Slab Murphy's man who runs the real estate portfolio for Slab, and just lately have had my findings confirmed by an ex-British Intelligence officer who has been directly connected to Irish Republican activities for many years.


The assessment below is done with an honesty that has gained me credit within the underworld because I have refused to offer false promises of rewards.

The people who I am talking to are fully aware that any monies paid would be post recovery of Vermeer and it is other favours that will allow the Vermeer to surface.



I thought my latest assessment of the Gardner Case may interest you.

For those interested in the great Gardner Art Heist St Patrick's Day 1990, Whitey Bulger, FBI collusion preventing Gardner art being recovered!!!!!!!!!

The Gardner Art Heist is rather more sad because the stolen art, Vermeer in particular were not insured. The $5 million reward offered is bogus as the Gardner does not have $5 million waiting to be collected.

Anne Hawley, director of Gardner museum is adamant and not one dime will ever be paid for the return of said art. Relayed to ex-Scotland Yard Art Chief Dick Ellis and Fine art loss adjuster Mark Dalrymple.

However, there was an opportunity to recover the Vermeer in 2002, when it was shown to FBI Agent Mike Wilson and a senior Irish official in a Dublin hotel room. After being totally satisfied they were looking at the real deal, they checked certain things to verify its authenticity.

No deal could be reached,(Whitey Bulger,'s spectre lurking in the background) (Irish govt refused to sanction Vermeer being recovered on Irish soil) Then, to add insult to injury, the criminals were allowed to leave , WITH, the Vermeer, which remains outstanding.

FBI Agent Michael Wilson was castigated by FBI bosses upon his return to the U.S. late summer 2002 and was moved off the Gardner case before retiring!!!! (Check with Feds, they will not deny this, also Charlie Hill, who facilitated Colin the informer to arrange the meeting in the Dublin hotel room.)

Some of the Gardner art was sent to Ireland by Whitey Bulger and Joseph Murray before Joe Murray was shot dead by his wife in 1992, before Whitey Bulger fled murder charges in Dec 1994.

Whitey Bulger then gave the Vermeer to a lifelong friend of Joseph Murray (Whitey's host in Ireland when Whitey Bulger was posing as a retired doctor in the West of Ireland, Fanore) and leader of the INLA, who has since died.

Soon after the Gardner art Heist of 1990 Joseph Murray paid the original thieves $300,000 for the art, subsequently Joseph Murray initially tried to use the Gardner art to have Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, INLA leader released from jail in the Republic of Ireland, where he was serving ten years for weapons violations.

Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, after his release from prison in March of 1993, began investigating claims that the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force was involved in money laundering with Irish criminals. In June of that year, he survived an assassination attempt made by UVF member Billy Wright.

On 10 February 1994, McGlinchey was making a call from a phone box in Drogheda when two men got out of a vehicle and proceeded to shoot him fourteen times. No-one has ever been charged with his murder and it is not known which group, whether Loyalist, Republican, state security service or criminal carried out the assassination. After his death INLA activity decreased and its organisational capability was nearly eliminated.

In 1995, when the FBI handed down 19 murder charges against, the now on the lam Whitey Bulger, Whitey's hosts in the West of Ireland were told in no uncertain terms by Sinn Fein, "IRA Army Council and the INLA that his continued presence in Ireland was detremental to the Irish Republican cause" Whitey Bulger left, first to France, then to South America and subsequently to Asia, Thailand in partiqular. Since then he has been a visitor back to Ireland and still has the ability and confidence to travel with impunity because the will to apprehend Whitey Bulger is not what it should be within the FBI. The Vermeer has been passed around and there was an outstanding debt, which hopefully Thomas Slab Murphy has paid.

Monies were lent against the Vermeer from a West of Ireland gangster group, or Clan as they like to be called. These people needed to be paid before control was passed back to Irish Republicans via IRA Chief of Staff Thomas "Slab" Murphy

Currently the Vermeer is in the control of Thomas Slab Murphy, IRA Chief of Staff, (confirmed by ex-senior Brit Intelligence Officer) who is willing to facilitate the return of the Vermeer in exchange for Sinn Fein being allowed to fund raise in America again, as well as Tom Murphy being allowed to pay some back-taxes, tax demand 5.4 million euros, and retire. I have always advocated favours other than money will be the way to recover the stolen Gardner art and will prevent the Gardner museum from being held liable for $5 million, although a "Subject to" clause in the reward offer does give Anne Hawley a get out. This will also prevent Whitey Bulger from collecting on the stolen Gardner Art!!!!

So, if FBI Agent Robert Wittman, Mitchell Reiss, Rep Peter King, and Ted Kennedy are sincere about recovering the Vermeer and also sincere in prompting Sinn Fein towards supporting Policing, then they should contact Thomas Slab Murphy at Home Place, Larkin's Road, Ballybinaby, Hackballscross, South Armagh/County Louth, Republic of Ireland. Until then the American people are denied one of Vermeer's best pictures, "The Concert", "The art of painting" being his best!!!!! For back-story see: www.stolenthefilm.com for details.


Another important dividend of the Vermeer being returned courtesy of the Irish Republican Movement, as a thankyou for all the support given by Irish America during the struggle, is Malachy McAllister is allowed to remain in the United States with his family. Hope the delay in reaching a decision about Malachy is due to his co-operation in helping facilitate the return of the Vermeer to Boston.

Whitey Bulger meeting his brother William in Ireland, which military intelligence have photo's of is yet another example of duplicitous actions of the Feds.

However, the Brits may not have shared this info with the Feds, to be fair.

The lack of impetus in arresting Whitey Bulger comes from the perceived fear that Whitey Bulger will implicate Robert Mueller as being complicit about murders that happened in the 1980's when he was a D.A. in Boston.

Everytime the FBI Bulger Squad are set to leave Boston for Ireland in pursuit of Whitey Bulger, Whitey is tipped off so he can leave Ireland only to return when the coast is clear. Whitey spends time in France as they will not extradite him because of the death penalty if he is ever captured in France.

With regards FBI Agent Mike Wilson, Dick Ellis and I met with him at the London American embassy during summer 2002.

Perhaps the Gardner Museum may be interested to know of the chance missed by Feds to recover the Vermeer Summer 2002?????

Makes one wonder "Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys"


Anne, I beg you to consider writing to General Thomas Slab Murphy at Home Place, Larkin's road, Ballybinaby, Hackballscross, County Louth/South Armagh to seek his intercession in the recovery of the Vermeer and to inform him that you are going to arrive in Ireland( In True Belle Gardner fashion) immanently and will be staying at the Ballymascanlon Hotel Dundalk, where you will be seeking an audience with Mr Tom Slab Murphy.

If you display Belle Gardner traits you will, I am sure, be granted an audience with Tom Slab Murphy, who will I am sure, be pragmatic, and sympathetic, then offer to make enquiries in the facilitating of the Vermeer being discovered in a confession box before returning to the Museum.

To set the wheels in motion you will then have to report to Senator Kennedy in his role as trustee, who will in turn contact Martin Ferris and see what kind of reward may be appropriate for Tom Slab Murphy.

As stated before, something arranged about reducing the tax demand against Slab, Sinn Fein allowed to fund raise( this is going to happen soon anyway it is on the agenda for Congress)

The Vermeer will I am sure appear just like the Scream and Madonna, only this time the symbolism of the Confession box will add to the incredible journey of the Vermeer.

Before you dismiss my request out of hand I want you to consider what practical plans have others offered???

Although outrageous, your pro-active action in going to Ireland will only serve as a constant reminder of the pioneering spirit of Belle Gardner lives on through her museum and the staff who work there.

Furthermore, In my opinion FBI Agent Robert Wittman is "Straight as a gun barrel" and would be the best person to liaise with in your future dealings about the Gardner theft.

I am not acquainted with Geoff Kelly but Harold Smith described Bob Wittman as "One of the finest FBI Agents I have come across"

Sure, pass this to Bob Wittman and ask him about FBI Agent Michael Wilson, his assessment of the Vermeer being in the control of Tom Slab Murphy, and his thoughts on you "Taking the Bull by the horns"

Before making a decision on what your course of action will be, go to the Sergeant portrait and pause, ask yourself what Belle Gardner would advise you to do, then, in the words of Nike, "Just do it"

Kind regards
Art Smuggler Offers Italy Mystery Masterpiece `X' to End Trial

By Vernon Silver

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- A convicted antiquities smuggler has offered to return a previously unknown ancient masterpiece known as ``Object X'' to Italy in exchange for reducing the jail time and fines he faces for supplying loot to U.S. museums.

A famous artist from the ancient world whose work compares to that of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci created Object X, says the convicted art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who is free while awaiting appeal. The object, which may be a statue, vase, or something else -- he's not saying -- is worth millions, he says.

``It's something they can only dream about,'' Medici, 68, says of the Italian officials with whom he's negotiating to cut his 10-year prison sentence and 10-million euro ($12.8 million) fine. ``And only I can bring it to them.''

Medici's case is part of a broader prosecution that includes Marion True, the former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who is on trial in Rome for conspiracy and receiving smuggled art. She denies the charges.

The mystery masterpiece, if it exists, risks never coming to light if Medici and prosecutor Paolo Ferri fail to reach an agreement by Oct. 4, when a Rome court is scheduled to hear Medici's appeal. Italian law bars plea bargaining after an appeal starts, Ferri says.

A sticking point is that Medici wants a guarantee that the market value of the work, referred to as Object X by both sides in the talks, will wipe out his fine. The prosecutor says he wants to see the object before making promises.

Dubious Prosecutor

``It could be a bluff,'' says Ferri, who says he'd rather lose Medici's masterpiece than get duped. ``I'm sorry if it's important.''

Medici, describing the proposal over a lunch of grilled calamari in Rome, refuses to say where the object is or how quickly he can get his hands on it. ``It could be a flight from Australia or three hours by train from Naples,'' he says.

The Getty, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts agreed this year to return antiquities to Italy based in part on evidence from Medici's December 2004 conviction for conspiracy, smuggling and receiving stolen antiquities.

Among the objects Medici was convicted for smuggling is a 2,500-year-old krater vase for mixing wine, painted by the Greek artist Euphronios, purchased by the Met in 1972 for $1 million. The Met agreed in February to give the pot and 20 other antiquities back to Italy.

Medici, a stocky, balding man, says the object he's offering is worth as much as the Euphronios krater, which the Met considered the finest Greek vase in its collection.

Ancient Goddess?

He says he's leaving Italian officials to wonder if Object X is another painted vase or a bronze by Lysippos, the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, an ivory head or a 2,300-year- old goddess carved by the Greek master Praxiteles.

Equivalent objects have been valued at more than 10 million euros in the international antiquities market. Such a masterpiece has eluded Italian police who've searched Medici's homes over the past decade, breaking down walls in search of hidden compartments.

On Sept. 20, prosecutor Ferri offered to reduce Medici's sentence to six years and to use Object X to offset the 10- million euro fine, but he wouldn't guarantee that it would wipe out the whole debt, Medici says. In return, Medici would drop his appeal, letting the conviction stand.

Ferri says he can't comment on details of continuing talks but doesn't dispute Medici's general account. A six-year sentence would likely result in probation with no jail time, Ferri and Medici say.

Medici's Appeal

For Italy, such a deal would eliminate the risk of the court overturning Medici's conviction and endangering future talks with museums and other smuggling prosecutions.

Medici's lawyers have filed a 78-page appeal at the Rome Tribunal that says the evidence doesn't prove Medici handled the objects or that the antiquities were stolen from archaeological sites in Italy. The appeal, obtained by Bloomberg News, also says procedural violations should lead to the case's dismissal.

Ferri has filed a point-by-point rebuttal of the appeal, which by law he cannot make public, he says. The prosecutor says Medici's appeal is based mostly on technical issues and not on the substance of the charges.

Medici argues that he'll be exonerated by a rational look at the case, which consists mostly of photographs seized from his Geneva warehouse. The photos depict antiquities in various states of restoration before they arrived at the Met, Getty and other museums.

He says people often sent him photos of objects to appraise as an art expert.

``It's unjust to convict someone for trafficking in an object just because he has photos,'' says Medici, who traveled the world buying and selling antiquities before the court seized his passport in 2004.

The prosecutor says Medici's latest promise to come up with a masterpiece shows the conviction hasn't kept the Roman dealer from the antiquities trade.

``It means he's continuing to traffic,'' Ferri says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vernon Silver in Rome at vtsilver@bloomberg.net

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Sunday Times, September 24, 2006

Feature


Trader of the lost art



Priceless works of art that were looted by the Nazis have ended up scattered across the world in respectable institutions. Clemens Toussaint has vowed to track them down and get them back. And they call him a merciless plunderer.

Report by John Follain


His name causes museum and gallery curators across the world to shudder, for his calling card is blank space where paintings once hung. But he is no thief – quite the opposite. More than 60 years after the war, thousands of works of art plundered from Jewish collectors by the Nazis are still installed in European institutions. Clemens Toussaint, a 45-year-old German multimillionaire, has made it his business to track them down and return them to their rightful owners.

Toussaint is a pioneer in the field – and visibly successful. His home is a luxurious seafront apartment in Monte Carlo, from which he commutes by helicopter. In two decades of hunting he has made millions from the fees he charges for his work – and countless enemies in the art world. Despite the fact that the museums and private collectors he targets are in possession of stolen goods, critics have branded him a merciless plunderer, motivated purely by money. One newspaper called him “the 50-per-cent man” because he reportedly demands half the value of a recovered work as his fee.

Toussaint has lost count of the dozens of works he has recovered for clients across the globe. Early in his career, he helped an elderly collector in East Germany to spirit works by Kandinsky and Klee to the West without the knowledge of the communist rulers. The money from the sales enabled the collector’s grandchildren to flee to the West. In 2001, Toussaint recovered a Klee watercolour, Deserted Square of an Exotic Town (whose value may be as much as £200,000), from the private Kiyomizu Sannenzka Museum in Tokyo. It was the first time a Japanese collector had returned a painting looted by the Nazis.

His greatest success was tracking six paintings by Kazimir Malevich, who died penniless in 1935 after falling foul of the Soviet authorities, to New York’s Museum of Modern Art on behalf of 31 descendants. In 1999 the museum paid an undisclosed sum in compensation, said to be $5m, and handed over to Malevich’s heirs a work called Suprematist Composition. They sold it at auction for $17m – a handsome percentage of which went to Toussaint.

He has now embarked on his most ambitious mission yet: a quest for an entire collection, a thousand or so paintings and drawings that were looted by Hermann Goering, the Third Reich’s second-in-command, from Jacques Goudstikker, a fabulously wealthy Dutch art dealer of Jewish origin who fled Amsterdam on the eve of the Nazi occupation. The collector’s heir has already won a landmark pledge from the Dutch government to return 202 paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Anthony Van Dyck and Salomon van Ruysdael hanging in various museums and galleries. The Goudstikker story features masked balls in a castle, the love of a beautiful Viennese opera soprano, an accidental death at sea, and a little black book listing alphabetically the dazzling treasures of an ill-fated collection: D for Donatello, G for Goya, R for Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens, V for Van Gogh…

#
#
#
#
#

In May 1940, as the Netherlands awaited a much-rumoured Nazi invasion, the 42-year-old Jacques Goudstikker braced himself for the collapse of the flamboyant, carefree life he and his family had built up over two generations. The biggest art dealer in Amsterdam, he owned palatial premises on the Herengracht canal – two canals from the more modest home of Anne Frank – which stocked a thousand works, many of them masterpieces. The fashion then was for 19th-century landscapes and historical subjects, but Goudstikker persuaded museums to buy and show 16th-century Italian art and 17th-century Dutch art. A skilled merchant, he also published lavish catalogues with full-page photographs of a quality unrivalled by his competitors.

The rotund Goudstikker had a taste for the high life. Apart from the canal mansion on the Herengracht, he owned a villa on the seafront outside Amsterdam, and the sprawling medieval Nijenrode Castle 15 miles away on the River Vecht, to which he travelled either in a luxury car or in his private launch. An amateur chef, he loved throwing parties at the castle, with guests dressed up as 17th-century Viennese courtiers, both men and women sporting ornate wigs decorated with flowers. He created real-life tableaux with local girls, fish and game to reproduce works by Vermeer and other artists, which he then photographed.

Goudstikker invited Austrian opera singers to his Vienna-on-the-Vecht party to entertain his guests. One of the singers, the glamorous Desi Halban, was to become his wife. Fourteen years younger than him, she bore him a baby boy, Edward, born days before the Nazis invaded and their world collapsed in May 1940.

Halban obtained visas and tickets for an ocean crossing to America, while Goudstikker carried out an inventory of his 1,400-work collection, arranging for 20 paintings to be shipped to America ahead of them. “Very soon, the day will come when we won’t see all this any more,” he told Halban. But he kept delaying their departure.

On May 14, 1940, the couple were talking to acquaintances in an Amsterdam street when Halban looked up to see paratroopers dropping out of the sky. They decided to leave that day. As they neared the port, they were stopped by a Dutch soldier. But he’d recently seen Desi in concert and only asked, “Are you Miss Halban?” before waving them through. They boarded the last ship out, abandoning their limousine on the quay, the keys in the ignition.

Two nights later, as the ship sailed through the Channel, virtually all its lights off because of fears of air attack, Goudstikker told Halban he needed some fresh air. When he failed to reappear, Halban left the cabin clutching the baby and shouting for people to help her find him. The search party found Goudstikker’s body the next morning. It was lying in a hold; he had fallen through a hatch in the darkness and broken his neck. Halban buried her husband in Liverpool and continued her journey to America.

A few weeks after Goudstikker’s death, Reichsmarschall Goering climbed the steps of the gallery on the Herengracht canal. Threatening confiscation, he “bought” an estimated 779 paintings in a sham transaction typical of the forced sales engineered by the Nazis. In the months that followed, two of the late Goudstikker’s employees handed the gallery over to Alois Miedl, Goering’s henchman, receiving a big reward of 180,000 guilders each. Miedl, under the orders of Goering, also gained ownership of the collector’s remaining art works, as well as his homes and his trade name. If anyone in Amsterdam mourned Goudstikker’s passing, they kept very quiet about it. Nobody stopped Miedl from continuing to trade under Goudstikker’s name. Between 1940 and 1944, Miedl made a fortune trading 4,000 works, many of them sold to Nazis in Germany.

In 1945 an American intelligence unit found many of Goering’s purchases hidden in salt mines near Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideout. Halban tried to recover the paintings but, after lengthy negotiations with the Dutch government, which treated her as a collaborator because the gallery had continued to operate during the war, she managed to buy back only 165 works in 1952.

Halban remarried and settled back in the Netherlands. “Desi was a grande dame, always beautiful,” said Marei von Saher, Edward’s wife. “She came to visit us in America three or four times a year, but she never really discussed the war. She did tell me that Jacques was the love of her life; he was the reason she returned to the Netherlands. She felt closer to him there.”

The former Mrs Goudstikker died of heart failure in 1996, and her son died of cancer five months later. It wasn’t until 1997, when a Dutch journalist approached her, that von Saher learnt the size of the missing collection.

#
#
#
#
#

The bay windows closed to keep out the noise of helicopters shuttling Monte Carlo residents to Nice airport, Toussaint sits in a leather armchair. His apartment is elegant and airy, with marble floors and a few modern art works including a Cy Twombly drawing and a Lucio Fontana slashed canvas. He laughs when asked about his collection. “You are a collector when you have so much stuff you can’t hang it all. I wouldn’t say that about the half-dozen things I’ve got.”

Dressed in an open-necked shirt with mother-of-pearl cufflinks, white chinos and suede shoes, he looks tired, with dark smudges under his eyes, probably owing to his having just flown in from Israel, where he took part in a conference on looted art. Toussaint, who speaks fluent English, French and German, hates the label “art detective”. It doesn’t do justice to his task, which he describes as “finding a needle in a haystack, persuading someone 60 years on that he or she should give something valuable back, and enforcing moral principles. It’s more historical researcher than police officer”.

The stakes in his profession are increasingly high, as demonstrated by two recent retributions which – clearly to his regret – were not his doing. In June, news broke of a record $135m paid by the cosmetics magnate Ronald S Lauder for a Gustav Klimt; the Austrian government had returned it to the original owner because it had been seized by the Third Reich. That same month, another painting, an Egon Schiele, which had been seized by the Nazis, fetched nearly $22m at an auction in London.

Toussaint stumbled on his career by chance. Born in Cologne in Germany in 1961, Toussaint learnt early about art: both his father, a political journalist, and his mother, a fashion designer, were collectors. He studied art history in Berlin, but dropped out to become a scriptwriter. His first script idea, in the mid-1980s, was to illustrate Germany’s slide into dictatorship by focusing on the story of one painting’s owners. His research took him to the archives of one German museum, where he found a boxful of appeals from Jewish families asking about works of art that used to belong to them, had been looted by the Nazis and were now hanging in its galleries. They had all fallen on deaf ears.

Toussaint was stunned, “Really shocked. Here were stories of people fleeing for their lives, hiding their art and then having it stolen. I confronted the museum directors and they told me the works were in great condition, why stir things up? I was furious.”

Toussaint learnt that a victorious America had returned a mere fraction of the looted art it had seized from the Nazis, and that had gone to state authorities in Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands. No effort had been made to find the rightful owners. “Democratic post-war states had enriched themselves with the fruits of war crime. Reality was more exciting than fiction, and I dropped the screenplay,” he says. Gradually, Jewish families asked Toussaint to find out more about looted art. “The Nazis plundered millions of art works and murdered millions of people. You can’t repair all that, but you can work towards some symbolic restitutions.”

At first he only had a laptop and a phone. He drew up a list of 10 missing paintings, and found three of them. His method was painstaking, often dull research. The first task was to correctly identify a painting. When a family had only vague recollections of it, he went through photo album after photo album to spot the work “hanging behind Grandmother on the dining-room wall”. Armed with such clues, he pored through catalogues of auction houses, galleries and museums, as well as art databases that stock thousands of photographs of paintings.

To reconstruct the painting’s story, he was usually forced to focus on people. “A painting doesn’t leave many traces – perhaps some insurance stuff, or a restoration report. To find a painting you have to reconstruct the lives of the people who may have come into contact with it. Each individual leaves traces. If you are not in the mafia or in intelligence, I can find you.”

Discretion is often required. “You can’t barge into a museum archive saying you are looking for files on the stolen painting upstairs. You simply say you’re looking for information on a particular painter.” At an art fair in New York, he asked a dealer for information about a painting. Assuming he was a potential buyer, she let him look at the back of the work, pointing out its pristine condition. Toussaint immediately spotted a telltale label. When he told her what the label meant, the woman furiously accused him of entering under false pretences. “That’s neither here nor there,” Toussaint retorted. “The fact is, you have a stolen painting.”

His job requires visual memory, unceasing travel – which leaves him little time to see his sons, 11-year-old twins (he and his wife are separated) – and imagination, as he needs to dream up theories which he can then test. Readiness to take on a fake identity also helps; he has twice impersonated a wealthy collector to obtain information on a painting.

There may of course be envy involved, but his tactics have caused resentment in the art world, with some branding him a bully. “Toussaint says he’s giving the little guys a chance,” Mathias Rastorfer, director of the Galerie Gmurzynska dealership in Cologne, Germany, has said of him. “His restitution tactics are almost like blackmail because museums are so afraid of the bad publicity, they feel they have no choice.”

Of all the unpleasant things said about him, which hurts Toussaint the most? “That I’m doing this for money. Everyone does his job for money,” he replies. “When I finished Malevich, I was criticised as a lucky adventurer, but that was the result of 10 years’ hard work.” Then there is his nickname, the 50-per-cent man. “It’s never 50, because you have to deduct expenses and work-time. Sometimes it’s 5% – it depends whether the work can be recovered quickly. Each deal is different.

I never made 50%.” When pressed, he becomes evasive and a little flustered before admitting that, yes, his fee can “start at 50%”. Surely that is outrageously greedy, especially given the value of many old masters? Does he think half the $135m paid for the Klimt would be a fair fee? Toussaint doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Yes. There was a lawyer involved who risked his existence – he worked on it for 10 years; $60m would be fair because he took the risk.”

“It’s easy to say afterwards, ‘You made too much money.’ But when you start out you don’t know how long it will take, whether you’ll find the work or what its value will be in several years’ time. You don’t even know whether the courts will find in your favour. If it was such an easy business, everyone would be doing it. I’ve had periods when no one wanted to put money into this, yet I have to manage the whole case and hire international lawyers.”

Of course, whatever Toussaint charges is the going price – there’s a market for recovering art looted by the Nazis, and he is just applying the laws of supply and demand. Later, he concedes that probably the most valuable painting from the Goudstikker collection – a 16th-century lifesize diptych of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, hanging at the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California – “could be as valuable as the Klimt”. Neither he nor the collector’s heir will disclose his fee, but Toussaint has said that the quest is costing “several hundred thousand dollars a year”.

He makes short shrift of the criticism that he plunders museums and galleries, robbing the public of masterpieces: “No one should profit from the fruits of war crime. You know what I tell someone who has just recovered a painting?

I tell them to behave like the owner they have become, to enjoy it. It’s important for them to have it in their own home, it’s part of their family history and gives them a glimpse of what they once had. And the works go back on show sooner or later – the Klimt never went into a bank vault, it’s already on show in New York.” Toussaint first came across the Goudstikker case four years ago, when he was contacted by Marei von Saher, who lives in Connecticut. She asked him to locate the Adam and Eve diptych. Toussaint got the information (the museum has so far refused to return it), then asked her about the rest of the collection. “I have no idea,” she said. “Have you ever tried to find them?” Toussaint asked. “How could we?” she replied.

#
#
#
#
#

The first clue in the search for the missing paintings lies in a cardboard box that is kept inside a climate-controlled safe in the Amsterdam Municipal Archives on the edge of the River Amstel. Goudstikker and Halban used to pass down this stretch on the way to their seafront villa. The senior archivist who brings the box to a special consultation room carries it gingerly, as if it contained a cocktail of explosive chemicals. As another archivist stands guard by the door, the box is opened to reveal the “black book” – the alphabetical index Goudstikker’s widow found among his belongings after his death.

The pages are still crisp and only slightly stained. The entries are typed neatly, detailing title and artist (Lorrain, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese et al), the painting’s size, exhibition and purchase records. “It’s our most precious piece of evidence,” explains Amelia Keuning, an Amsterdam lawyer working with Toussaint. “Goudstikker ensured that it was right up to date; he himself wrote a big red V [for Verkocht – sold] if a work was sold before his departure.”

For the team – Toussaint himself and an associate each in Berlin, Amsterdam, Cologne and New York – the next step was to visualise the index’s contents by finding photographs of the missing paintings. Researchers including Jan Thomas Köhler, a German art historian, spent 10 hours a day, for three years, at the Netherlands Institute for Art History in the Hague, which has 8m photographs of Dutch paintings, and to whom Goudstikker supplied photographs of the works he traded. “You can’t imagine how many boxes of photographs labelled ‘landscape with river and bridge’ I went through,” says Köhler.

So far, the team has found photographs of two-thirds of the Goudstikker collection. To locate the paintings, they do not hesitate to check the backs of canvases – alarm systems permitting. Many of them still bear the “Collectie Goudstikker” label. The collection has been dispersed across the globe. One painting was found in an old people’s home in Germany, another in the lobby of a golf club in South Africa, and yet another in a museum in Puerto Rico.

Once the team has tracked down a painting, the lawyers take over. Larry Kaye, of the New York law practice Herrick, Feinstein, who represents von Saher, says they were in luck when a drawing by Degas called Four Dancers was tracked down to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “The museum had no idea the drawing had a wartime history. It had been donated by a sponsor. We were able to argue a persuasive case, and within a year they agreed to return it,” Kaye says. Von Saher sold the drawing to pay for the continuing search.

For the most part, the museums Kaye contacts in America and elsewhere simply dig in their heels and tell him they will study the matter. In February, however, after eight years of vacillating, the Dutch government agreed to return 200 of the collection’s paintings, which had been hanging in 17 different state-owned museums, galleries and embassies since the 1950s.

One of those hit by the ruling is Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which will have to give up 15 works. Peter Sigmund, its director of collections, put a brave face on the loss. “Times have changed,” he said. “There is a new generation which looks at things in a different light. It’s as if we have had [the paintings] here as a temporary loan.” They may, however, stay in the public eye. Von Saher is thinking of staging an exhibition of the recovered works, or even of creating a museum to house them permanently. “It would be a way of honouring my father-in-law’s legacy,” she says.

#
#
#
#
#

I caught up again with Toussaint at a bar in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Since we first met in Monte Carlo five weeks earlier, he had travelled to Italy, America and Britain, all for business, and taken a short holiday in France with his sons. His KLM flight from London had been cancelled, forcing him to sit and wait for a couple of hours, but he was looking delighted because of the big brown package marked “FRAGILE” resting on his luggage trolley. “There’s a painting in there, it was Goudstikker’s and I just got it back from a London art dealer,” he announced.

Resurrection, by the 17th-century Flemish artist Thomas de Keyser, is the right-hand side of an altarpiece diptych – the other half is still missing. It took Toussaint two years to recover this painting after he found out it was on show at a fair in Maastricht. “The dealer was shocked when we approached him, but we worked out a fair settlement,” Toussaint says. True to form, he wouldn’t reveal anything about the figure reached with the dealer, “who is not far from Christie’s”. But he did say the dealer had previously put the painting on sale for some £60,000.

It’s one painting in a thousand. Has he got himself a job for life tracking down the remainder of the collection? “I may never get to the end of the search. But war means destroying art. Twenty years ago nobody cared about a painting’s history – Sotheby’s would offer an old master for auction and just mention that it was ‘consigned by a European gentleman’. But today, when an art work comes on the market, establishing where it comes from is as important as proving it is authentic. What we do has changed the rules of the game."