Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Three Musketeers of the Stolen Art World, Charlie Hill far left !!

Masterpiece detectives: inside the investigator’s art

The Herald Focus

Karin Goodwin

Lord Stewartby's coin collection was said by experts to be unique. The former Tory minister started it when he was just four years old and, more than 60 years later, he had amassed almost 2000 coins, dating back as far as 1136 and valued at more than £500,000.

They included a silver penny minted under the reign of Robert the Bruce and others struck under James I and II. In short, it was the most historically important collection in Britain. A leading numismatist, the 72-year-old peer had retired in May and, anticipating time to concentrate on research, had taken his collection home to Broughton Green, the house in the Borders where 39 Steps author John Buchan once lived, to be catalogued. But it seems he was not the only person attracted to rare coins. Between June 6 and 7, while he and his wife were on holiday, the house was broken into and the collection taken. "It was such a great shock," he said at the time.

The £50,000 reward he has put up for information leading to its safe return speaks volumes about his determination to get the collection back. That means a select band of individuals may be wondering if the phone will ring requesting their expertise. A group of former senior police officers - most of whom worked for the Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit - loss adjustors and international data-base co-ordinators are the UK's art detectives.

For the most part they insist that criminals behind art thefts are not really any different from any other. They reject outright too, the myth of a Dr No-type figure sitting in his nuclear bunker surrounded by precious masterpieces and fine antiques.

But it's certainly big business. Internationally, an estimated 10,000 works - collectively worth billions of pounds - are taken from museums, private collections and country homes every year. These supplement the catalogue of the already missing, which runs to some 479 Picassos, 347 Miros, 290 Chagalls, 225 Dalis, 196 Durers, 190 Renoirs, 168 Rembrandts and 150 Warhols. Internationally, the most famous thefts include that of 13 works, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt and collectively worth $300m, from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston.

Among Britain's most notorious thefts are that of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece Madonna of the Yarnwinder, taken from the Duke of Buccleuch's home, Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries and Galloway, in August 2003. The thieves simply bought tickets along with other tourists and then held up a guide before pulling the painting, worth £70m, off the wall and walking out the door with it.

Their tactics might seem crude but Richard Ellis, a former head of the Met's art and antiques unit, who now works as a security and recovery expert for Art Management, says they should not be underestimated. "They are professionals who will do their research very carefully and know exactly what they are looking for before they strike," he warns.

According to those in the know, art is stolen not usually to order but by someone who knows they can shift works quickly to a handler for cash. Profits often go into drugs or arms, or the painting used as collateral in a deal.

"Another trend that we're seeing now is that pieces are being sold through eBay," explains Ellis. "There is no way of regulating that and police will admit that they just don't have the resources to monitor it."

The Met art and antiques squad, the UK's largest (it receives 120 requests a year for assistance on average), only stretches to four officers. It's no wonder the police can't cope.

But Ellis sees another problem. "What makes this type of criminal so successful is that the police are under pressure to concentrate on crimes such as anti-social behaviour but you have to be operating in the upper stratosphere to draw the attention of the organised-crime agency. Consequently there is no-one looking at this high-value professional type of criminal."

In recent decades several attempts have been made to tackle the problem. In 1989, with art theft on the rise, Ellis joined the Met and started a new phase in detection. In the 1990s he worked on high- profile sting operations with fellow officers John Butler and Charley Hill, recovering a Vermeer in an Antwerp car park in 1993. A year later, Hill posed as a representative of the Getty Museum in New York. Offering a $5m reward, he bagged Munch's The Scream.

Gradually budgets dried up, ironically creating a gap in the market for Ellis and his contemporaries to work independently. Ellis now works for a variety of clients including the Egyptian government, loss adjustors and owners. He travels all over the world following leads and recently recovered paintings worth millions.

But he remains frustrated at the number of UK country houses that are easy targets, claiming that the recent coin theft is one of a series sweeping the north of England and the Borders.

Mark Dalrymple, director of Tyler & Co and a fine-art loss adjustor charged with trying to return the Madonna to its owner, understands his frustration but says the thefts will continue because of one main factor - money.

"People aren't stealing these for their homes," he says. "They may be bathing in the afterglow and prestige that comes with such a major theft in the eyes of their contemporaries. But, at the end of the day, it's about making money."

One former stolen-art handler and author of the Art Hostage blog, who left his criminal career behind almost a decade ago, concurs. He explains how it worked. "When people came to me after a job, they would get a percentage of trade price. For example, if something was worth £3m and I could get £50,000 for it, they'd get £10,000. I'd pay them there and then so it's relatively easy money for a couple of hours' work. And you're much less likely to get caught than you would be holding up an ATM machine."

The handler would then pass it on to contacts in the antiques trade, who he claims were happy to turn a blind eye and would offer information to the police in return for them occasionally doing the same thing.

Often works would end up at London's Bermondsey Market, where, due to the ancient marche ouvert (open market) principle, an owner who had bought in good faith between sunrise and sunset got good title. "That meant you had people out thieving on a Thursday night, shunting it straight to handlers and selling it for cash at 5am in the morning," Dalrymple sighs. "Even if the buyers subsequently found out it had been stolen they wouldn't have it taken off them. It was daft."

In response, he founded the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat) in the late 1980s, a forum for the art world, insurers and police to work together. It resulted in the abolition of the market ouvert principle, and, for a while at least, better co-operation from dealers.

It may have helped but art theft is still rife and tracing works is harder than ever according to Dalrymple, who claims that, due to new legislation about protecting informants, most of his criminal sources don't bother to give him the badly needed tip-offs that led to the concealed masterpieces. He still has means, one of the most unlikely being the placing of ads in the trade press, which in 2002 led to the recovery of a Goya, stolen the year before.

Another helpful tool is the London-based Art Loss Register, which has recovered £120m worth since it was established in 1991. For a 15% finders fee they will rake through auction catalogues and have a presence at every major art fair, checking for pieces registered as stolen.

"The strength of the data base lies in that registered items will never get removed and that we work closely with the police and the insurance industry worldwide," says organisation spokeswoman Maya Bernard.

But, according to former police officer Hill, there's no substitute for good old-fashioned legwork. The maverick detective who developed a formidable reputation for his undercover work with the Met in the 1990s, now works freelance, flying round the world in search of the "big ones". When we speak he is on his way to Spain to follow a lead on the Gardner thefts committed 17 years ago in Boston.

But not everyone is a fan of his methods. In 2002, while on the trail of Titian's Rest on the Flight into Egypt - stolen in 1995 from Longleat - he enlisted the help of known art criminal David Duddin. That led to an approach by another man who said he could help, driving him around west London until he discovered the painting in a plastic bag near a bus stop. The man was paid a £100,000 reward, and Duddin also got a fee. Hill says he was satisfied that neither was involved in the crime, allowing him to pay the reward without breaching laws preventing criminals benefiting from their acts. Others said that by paying out he was encouraging works to be held to ransom. He insists he knows his limits. "You have to be confident that you know the difference between right and wrong," he says. "My test is that everything I do has to be both legal and reasonable."

The other requirements are persistence, a love of the chase and, perhaps most importantly, a fascination with the works. He confesses he is more interested in recovering art than catching crooks. "It's the art that I'm really interested in," he says. "Its historical significance sometimes outweighs its financial value, like that coin collection for instance. That is really important to Scotland. I'd like to think I could get that back."

Worrying Trends in Art Crime, Charlie Hill Mounts Canadian Police !!

Vol. 69, Issue 2 2007

The Royal Mounted Canadian Police
By Charles Hill

Art crime is any property crime with one or more works of art as its focal point. In our age, art is what you want it to be-and what you can get away with convincing others it is.
Most incidents of art crime are not committed by violent theft during robberies nor by burglary, but from thefts by deception. These thefts include any in which fraud, fakes, forgery or false attribution takes place, and they are the big money spinners.

Violent art thefts are relatively rare compared to thefts by deception. Once in a blue moon people do make money out of high-profile heists but, essentially, violent art crime is a game in which everyone loses.

Most successful and professional art thieves are smooth-talking tricksters. Art thefts by family members, employees and opportunists tend to be serious annoyances, usually covered by insurance. All such crimes will continue as long as art remains an enticement for avarice, an exercise in power and generator of excitement.
Art and violence

Violent art crime, however, is obviously different in its intensity, and it needs to be curbed.

Most violent criminals enjoy the self-esteem, self-regard and self-indulgence they feel when committing high-profile art crimes on specific occasions.

They tend to commit these crimes when police resources are stretched, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to get caught.

Here are five examples of high-profile art crimes that have taken place in the past two decades:

The theft of the original version of Edvard Munch’s Scream stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo on the first day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

The theft of a portrait attributed to Rembrandt called Rembrandt’s Mother from Wilton House, Wiltshire in England on Guy Fawkes /Bonfire Night, November 5, 1994.

The theft of Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt and two other 16th century paintings from Longleat House, Wiltshire on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1995.

The theft of the Ashmolean Museum’s only Cezanne at Oxford University on Millennium Eve, 2000.

The armed robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Mass. on the night of St. Patrick’s Day 1990 in which several Rembrandts, a Vermeer and other highly significant works of art were stolen.

To those examples we can add three violent art thefts committed by Eastern European gangsters:

The armed robbery of versions of Munch’s Scream and Madonna paintings from the Munch Museum in Oslo in August 2004 by Norwegian criminals working on behalf of Balkan bandits, specifically Kosovar Albanians.

The armed robbery of a Rembrandt and two Renoirs from the National Museum of Sweden in Stockholm in December 2000. Again, this was a crime instigated by Balkan bandits, specifically Kosovar Albanians.

The armed robbery of two Turners stolen in July 1994 from an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt while on loan from Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art in London. The theft revealed a trail that led back to a Serbian gang and its leader, Arkan. His own people later assassinated him for political reasons.

In all three latter examples, the paintings have been recovered. A substantial monetary reward was paid for the two Turners (although not for a third painting stolen at the same time). The Albanian Norwegian gangster who instigated the Scream and Madonna armed robbery in 2004 is currently appealing.

Organized gangs

Although there are many art crimes that are unrelated to organized criminal gangs, the notoriety of the ones mentioned above means that we should probably prepare for more.

These are not lunatics operating to the phases of the moon, but gangsters who see specific opportunities for crime when their profiles and vanities can receive a boost from specific occasions and places, and when they think the police will be otherwise engaged.

If a cut stone is a work of art, the attempted armed robbery in 2002 to steal a collection of gems including the 203-carat Millennium Star diamond at the Millennium Dome in London, England is another example of the attraction of art crime to calculating minds. Although foiled by police, those thieves derived inspiration from a James Bond film. They smashed into the dome with a bulldozer and planned to escape in a speedboat across the river Thames.

Even worse was the destruction in Afghanistan of the great Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001 and the earlier looting and destruction of the Kabul Museum by various Afghan groups, including the Taliban. There is a constant threat to religious works of art from religious groups who regard themselves as iconoclastic purifiers of faith.

In 2005, while looking for very valuable stolen property from the counties surrounding London, I asked a notorious Irish traveller in the West of England called Jimmy Johnson if he had seen any signs of Balkan bandits coming to England to steal works of art.

His reply was interesting. He said that two Albanians had visited his caravan site some weeks earlier and asked him if they could run with his family in drugs crime and major house burglaries. He told me he said no to them because he was trying to get his family away from those activities.

Then, he said, they asked him if he wanted anyone killed, to which he replied that if he needed someone to do that, he would do it himself.

The significance of Johnson’s responses is that the newer organized criminal groups in England work to a different code of conduct than the typical people who commit violent art crimes in the British Isles. Whether Albanian, Somalian or a member of any organized crime group, these criminals are likely to be increasingly violent and remorseless because they often come from societies more violent than contemporary English society.

For them, art crime will be an easy option once they have the motivation and opportunity, the infrastructure and the right criminal contacts.

The most serious art theft since the Second World War was the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, 17 years ago. My view is that the stolen paintings were shipped to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then containerized and sent to Limerick, Ireland. All of that may have been organized by a remnant of the Winter Hill gang in Boston. Joe Murray, its leader at the time, was shot dead by his wife at their summer house near the New Brunswick-Maine border. She subsequently died from a drug overdose.

The paintings are probably in the west of Ireland where they will remain indefinitely and are unlikely to surface until Boston mobster James J. "Whitey" Bulger is arrested. Bulger also stars on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and was the major Boston criminal at the time of the Gardner Museum robbery. For those who like their criminals fictionalized, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Bulger character in Martin Scorsese’s 2007 Oscar-winning film The Departed is interesting, but in real life, "Whitey" is still alive.

To curb violent art robbery by organized criminal gangs in Western Europe, those Gardner Museum paintings need recovering as a lesson in the futility of stealing priceless works of art.

Looking ahead

The threat of terrorist activity and violent art crime will come together in London when the city hosts the 2012 Olympics. The museums, galleries and archival stores in London will become soft targets when public order policing dominates Olympic security considerations.
Preparing for and preventing such an attempt is important because it will be the benchmark by which other major violent art crime attacks will be measured in future decades. The war on terror is going to go on for a long time, and international art treasures are vulnerable.

We need to think about these potential art crime problems and the solutions to them now. Law enforcement agencies in British Columbia could prudently do the same when preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

During his more than 20 years working for the London Police in the U.K., Charles Hill specialized in investigating art and antiques theft. He has been involved in recovering numerous works of art, including the original version of Edvard Munch’s Scream, stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Today he provides art risk management and security advice to individual art collectors, dealers and public and private institutions.

'High value' jewellery snatched

Detectives have launched an inquiry into the theft of jewellery worth at least £100,000 in Dunblane.

A bag containing the gems was snatched from a 61-year-old man as he got out of a car in the town's Grant Drive at about 1400 BST on Thursday.

The thief, described as of Asian or Mediterranean appearance and in his early 20s, escaped in a maroon-coloured car with three other people inside.
Police confirmed that the stolen items were worth a six figure sum.

Detective Sergeant Donna Bryans, of Stirling CID, said: "A substantial amount of jewellery was taken from the 61-year-old as he got out of a car.

"The thief is described as of Asian or Mediterranean appearance, in his early 20s and had short dark hair.

"This man made off in a waiting four-door maroon-coloured car which had another three Asian or Mediterranean men inside."

Art Hostage comments:

Charles Hill is a Lumberjack and he's Ok, he works all night and he sleeps all day......... headin "Due South" for Sunny Spain Junket, wonder who is paying ??

Perhaps the Balkan Bandits have landed in Dunblane Scotland?

Art Hostage does have much to say as you would expect, however, I need to get security clearence before doing so.

A classic case of Realpolitik going on behind the scenes.

No comments: