Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Boston Masterpiece Stolen, Thrown in Garbage Just a Ruse to try and Smoke out the Thief !!



Wellesley College museum's cherished Leger is lost, and the crate that held it may have been trashed

A prized 1921 painting by the French cubist Fernand Leger has been lost - perhaps unintentionally thrown out - by Wellesley College's Davis Museum and Cultural Center.

That would be a costly mistake. Last year, the average Leger painting sold for $2.8 million.

"Woman and Child" is part of an important series by Leger that applied jagged, geometric strokes to a familial theme. John McAndrew, then director of the Davis, gave the oil on canvas to the museum in 1954, and it has hung on the walls of the Davis for most of the time since.

"It's very sad and upsetting that it's gone," said Wellesley art historian Patricia Gray Berman, who brought her students to look at the Leger every semester. "It's a great painting, and I hope it comes home."

College and museum officials declined to comment, other than to release a pair of short statements this week. Police have been informed of the missing painting, and the museum's insurer has already paid off its claim.

In the statements, the museum provided a timeline leading up to the Leger's disappearance. The painting, which measures 25 inches by 21 inches, was taken down early in 2006, in advance of the museum's renovation that May. It was sent to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art along with 31 other works for an exhibit that ran from March 2, 2006, through April 8, 2007.

The Oklahoma City museum returned the works a week after the show closed, but they remained in crates for months because the Davis construction project was still underway. A crate believed to contain the Leger sat in the museum's fifth-floor galleries through last fall, when it was moved to a vault elsewhere in the building. In November, museum administrators discovered the painting was missing when they were compiling a digital catalog and sought to include information about the Leger, according to one of the statements.

A few days later, Davis registrar Bo Mompho called Oklahoma City Museum of Art registrar Matthew C. Leininger.

"She asked me, 'Do you have our Leger, by chance?' " Leininger recalled yesterday. "I said, 'No, why are you asking?' That's when she said they couldn't find it. I said, 'Oh, boy.' "

Leininger scoured his museum's crate room and vault. But, he said, he already knew the painting had been shipped back. When the museum's exhibit ended, he followed policy by cataloging each work as it was packed. The Leger had been put into a crate with two other works, an Armand Guillaumin oil on canvas and a László Moholy-Nagy oil on linen.

On April 16, 2007, two trucks left Oklahoma City with two crates of art and an accompanying Davis museum preparator, according to Leininger. All of the other shipped works have been accounted for, both the Davis and Oklahoma City museums confirm.

During that November call, Leininger asked Mompho if she and her staff had checked their vaults. They had.

"I said, 'Where are the crates?' " Leininger said. "And she said, 'They were sent off to be destroyed.' "

Mompho did not answer requests for comment yesterday.

Museum officials also did not respond to questions about the Davis's standard procedures for cataloging incoming artworks, or whether they were followed in this case.

Late last year, in a meeting with anxious Wellesley art historians, Davis Museum director David Mickenberg said that the painting may have been destroyed along with the crates, according to three faculty members who attended the meeting. He also speculated that it could have been stolen sometime after leaving Oklahoma City. The painting has been reported as missing to the Art Loss Register, an online database of stolen or lost works. A Wellesley Police Department spokesman confirmed yesterday that investigators are working with college police on the case, though there is nothing to report.

Mickenberg did not return repeated phone calls this week. Other museum staff members referred calls to Davis spokeswoman Barbara Levitov.

Founded more than 120 years ago, the Davis is central to Wellesley's educational mission, and puts on such substantial shows as "Global Feminisms" and "On Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West." The museum reopened last September, but as word of the missing painting spread, it put a damper on that good news.

"We've all wondered about it," said Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, associate professor of art at Wellesley. "It's a tremendous loss for the college, but, beyond that, we just don't have a lot of information."

Matthew Affron, a University of Virginia art history professor with expertise in Leger, described "Woman and Child" as an important work in the artist's 50-year career.

"He was well known at the time for a style that had hard edges, bright colors, and strong geometry that stood for order and precision, but in a work like this he combined that very static style with a very timeless subject," Affron said.

Carolyn Hill, director of the Oklahoma City museum, said she imagines that Mickenberg and his staff are heartbroken by the loss.

"What I can't imagine is that they get through the checklist, why wasn't it discovered that that painting was not accounted for? That's just a question that's unanswered."

If the painting was, in fact, stolen, the likelihood of recovery declines with each passing day. Anthony Amore, director of security for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, itself the victim of a 1990 theft of 13 priceless works, declined to comment on the Davis case specifically.

"I would liken it to a kidnapping," said Amore. "Those first few hours and days are vital."

While Travelers Insurance confirmed yesterday that it paid the museum's claim, officials at the Hartford-based company would not say exactly how much the Davis received. When asked how the payout compared with the $2.8 million average sale price of a Leger, a Travelers official conceded that the payoff was "in that area." The company is offering a $100,000 reward for the painting and is still investigating the case.

"It's the largest loss Travelers ever had," said Andrew Gristina, director of fine art insurance for the company. "It's incredibly unusual for a painting of this value and, frankly, of this quality to disappear without a trace."

Art Hostage comments:

So, how does one actually collect this supposed reward offer of $100,000 ?

Truth of the matter is investigators have a clear idea who may have taken this artwork, a worker, employee etc.

The line being spun about the artwork may have been thrown out in the garbage is just a ruse to allow the current handler of this artwork to try and hand back the artwork for the reward and claim they found it amongst garbage.

Where have we heard this before ?

Remember last year when Elizabeth Gibson said she found the stolen painting in a garbage skip, linked here:

Because she had got her story right and authorities could not prosecute her, Elizabeth Gibson was allowed only a minimum amount.
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Also see this story of another who tried to say they just found a stolen artwork:
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The outcome is linked here:
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Also see this story:
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The outcome is still awaited, but make no mistake no large reward will be paid.
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Now, authorities are hoping to fool the person in possession of this Wellesley Collage Leger artwork to come forward and hand it back using the same tactic as Elizabeth Gibson.

However, as soon as the painting surfaces whomever tries to claim the $100,000 reward will be arrested and even if they are not indicted they would face an uphill battle to get any reward offered.

Remembering also Elizabeth Gibson waited years before revealing she had the stolen Tamayo painting.

So, to sum up.

If you are the person in possession of this artwork you are hereby warned you will, I repeat Will never get the reward and also stand a good chance of getting arrested and indicted.
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The first thing you will be asked to provide is "Proof of Life", what is written on the back of the painting, a photograph etc. The reason for this is ensnare and hook you as demonstrating control of the painting.
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Then subsequently if you realise you are going to be stung and try to walk away, authorities can indict you for demonstrating control of this stolen painting by Leger.
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This will be used as leverage to make you go through with the recovery.
If you do not co-operate you will end up in jail.
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So by offering proof of life you implicate yourself.-
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Authorities will try and say they need proof of life to make sure they dealing with the right person, bullshit, it is to entrap anyone trying to negotiate the return of stolen art.
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However, if you want to return this artwork then just call Travelers and tell them where they collect the artwork, do not try and claim any reward, specifically, do not give any indication of your identity, walk away without reward, but with your Liberty intact.

If you disregard the advice of Art Hostage and try to negotiate the reward I can assure you it will end in tears and possibly end in jail time, but hey, take the chance if you wish, but don't say you were'nt warned.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, FBI Icon Robert Wittman Retires September 2008, Sends Shudder Down Private Sector's Spine, Time to Clean Their Act Up !!


From the Art World to the Underworld

The FBI's Robert Wittman has spent his career chasing missing masterpieces. Now thieves are growing bolder -- and more violent.


By KELLY CROW
August 22, 2008; Page W1

Shortly after 9 a.m. on June 4, three men drove to a seaside promenade near Marseilles, their van carrying paintings by Brueghel, Sisley and Monet. The art had been stolen at gunpoint from the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice last August. Now a Frenchman working for an American art dealer was supposed to show up and buy four works for $4.6 million in cash. Instead, nearly a dozen French police cars pulled up, led by a colonel for the gendarmerie who quickly took a call from Pennsylvania. "We got them!" Col. Pierre Tabel shouted into his cellphone.


The caller was Robert Wittman, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who had acted as the American "dealer" and orchestrated the sting. Mr. Wittman thanked the colonel and celebrated alone, drinking a mug of coffee on his back porch while his wife slept.

Mr. Wittman is one of the world's top art-crime investigators. His specialty is going undercover. The 52-year-old has spent two decades impersonating shady dealers and befriending thieves. In all, he's tracked down $225 million in missing objects, including a Rembrandt self-portrait and an original copy of the Bill of Rights.

Skyrocketing values for art and endemic security flaws at museums are enticing a new generation of thieves and raising the stakes of his job. An increasing number of thieves have started taking art by force in broad daylight rather than by stealth, according to the International Council of Museums, a nonprofit that represents 1,900 museums and galleries around the world. Jennifer Thevenot, the council's program-activities officer, says, "Previously, it was all 'Pink Panther' -- guys in gloves slipping in at night -- but now they walk in with weapons."


The U.S. is the biggest buyer within the $6 billion black market for art, the FBI says. Last year alone, 16,117 artworks in the U.S. were listed by the London-based Art Loss Register as missing or stolen, up from 14,981 the year before. At the same time, worsening economies and shifting priorities are forcing governments to slash their budgets to combat art crime. New York City cut $4 million from its museum-security budget earlier this summer.

For years the FBI has relied solely on Mr. Wittman to play the undercover roles of gullible or greedy art lover, but now for the first time the bureau is upending tradition by training a nationwide squad to combat art crime. Prosecutors and law-enforcement officials are hailing the move but wonder whether any of the dozen-odd agents in the FBI Art Crime Team will be ready to take over Mr. Wittman's covert work before he retires later this year.

The recent sting in France illustrates Mr. Wittman's approach to undercover work. The operation began after the Nice museum was robbed last August. The FBI's Miami office got a tip that a shaggy-haired career criminal named Bernard Jean Ternus was discreetly shopping masterpieces to art dealers near Fort Lauderdale. Mr. Wittman flew in and introduced himself to Mr. Ternus as a Philadelphia art dealer who liked to buy Impressionists and Dutch Old Masters and didn't care where they came from. The two men held several meetings, including one on a yacht where they drank Champagne. In January, the pair met in Barcelona, Spain, so the rest of the crew could size up Mr. Wittman. By late spring, Mr. Wittman got so chummy with the group -- one man ran a motorcycle shop, another rented bulldozers -- that he was able to introduce his so-called sidekick, actually an agent for the French police. That agent promised to bring the money to Marseilles on June 4. The sting was set. (Mr. Ternus later pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell stolen art and will be sentenced in Florida on Sept. 18; the other men arrested with the art in Marseilles are awaiting trial in France.)

Mr. Wittman says such work can be "incredibly stressful" because "unlike actors, you only get one shot and you have to remember everything you ever said." Col. Tabel, who investigates art crimes for the French government and followed Mr. Wittman's chess-like maneuvers throughout the 10-month sting, is more effusive: "To me, he is a living legend."

Yet within the FBI, Mr. Wittman has always been an anomaly because of his interest in chasing art thieves. Despite the public attention that follows major art thefts and any subsequent recoveries, the FBI has historically treated art crime like a tweedy backwater compared with offenses like terrorism, racketeering and drug smuggling. Cases involving looted artifacts were hardly a priority five years ago. Even now, New York's art cases are handled by a major-theft agent, James Wynne, who doesn't go undercover. But after the massive looting of Baghdad's National Museum five years ago sparked public outrage, Mr. Wittman realized the bureau might be persuaded to invest more in protecting U.S. museums.

The FBI quickly began working with U.S. Customs and governments throughout the Middle East to stem the flow of Iraq artifacts into the U.S. and still regularly posts images of missing pieces on its Web site. The bureau made its first Iraq-related recovery when a Marine turned in eight ornately carved stones that he bought on duty as souvenirs, not realizing until later they had been stolen.

Mr. Wittman, who had been the FBI's only undercover art agent for about 15 years, began petitioning his superiors shortly after the Baghdad looting to create its own art-crime team. The idea won the support of several other art-crime fighters outside the bureau. Rather than pull agents from other squads, their plan was to train around a dozen agents who could be posted at field offices throughout the country and be allowed to pursue art cases as their regular caseloads permitted. Should a major theft occur, the group could be sent to the scene immediately, their roles already defined, or work with police agencies around the world if invited to help out.


It helped Mr. Wittman's lobbying efforts to point out that far smaller countries already had art squads, even if some have lately suffered under recent budget cuts. Scotland Yard in London has four art detectives, down from 14 during their squad's heyday two decades ago. France has 30, and Italy boasts 300 art-hunting carabinieri, including investigators who use helicopters to patrol the country's myriad archaeological dig sites.

The team, assembled in large part by Mr. Wittman, was allotted an annual operational budget, aside from agent salaries, of around $100,000. The members quickly began tackling a variety of art cases. In St. Louis, Frank Brostrom, who joined the group after working as a bomb technician and surveillance expert, caught a man three years ago who tried to peddle a forged Rembrandt for $2.8 million by masquerading as a Saudi sheikh in full ceremonial garb.

Among the FBI's rank and file, art crime remains a tough sell, agents say. Geoffrey Kelly, who works art crimes out of Boston, says he "gets a lot of ribbing" from co-workers for lining his cubicle with books on Renaissance painters as well as crime-scene photos; Mr. Brostrom says agents on his former violent-crimes squad in St. Louis bought him art books as gag gifts when he joined the art team. "I actually use those books," he says.

By and large, the agents signed up for the team either because they are intrigued by art or because they respect the careers of Mr. Wittman and Mr. Wynne, a former banker who investigates art cases in New York. Some members, like Christopher Calarco, a former prosecutor in Los Angeles, joined after only having six years' experience at the bureau. None had any prior expertise in fine art. After Mr. Calarco was tapped, he says he tried to brush up by digging out his notes from a college art-history course.

To take on major art cases, Mr. Wittman needs the team to have a delicate understanding of the art world -- and underworld. That means being able to discern the difference between etchings and aquatints, palettes and provenance, genuine masterpieces from expert forgeries. (One clue: The varnish on a 300-year-old painting will be laced with tiny cracks, which fakes rarely have.)


Mr. Wittman grew up working weekends at his family's antiques shop in Baltimore, where his father taught him "how to haggle and how to appreciate old things," he says. When he joined the FBI in 1988, he was assigned to Philadelphia's eastern-district field office where he initially investigated crimes like truck hijackings and jewelry-store robberies. He quickly expanded his caseload to take on art crimes, though, and over the years, he built up a reputation for making quirky cultural recoveries. In 1999, for example, he caught an Atlanta lawyer trying to sell Geronimo's feathered headdress for $1.2 million despite the federal ban on selling bald-eagle feathers. Two years earlier, he confiscated a 2,000-year-old piece of gold Peruvian armor that had been smuggled into the U.S. by a Panamanian diplomat.

These days, he works in Philadelphia but tries to call the team members every week or so to keep abreast of their caseloads. Occasionally, he fields their art-related questions. Once he had to politely correct an agent who described Picasso as an Impressionist: "I didn't want to embarrass him, so I just said, 'People usually call him a great modernist.'"

The group has spent time together in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Santa Fe in order to learn the basics of art crime as seen by museum security directors, art dealers, and academics. When the group showed up at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe last year, the museum's director of operations, Amy Green, spotted them immediately in the crowd: "We're pretty casual here, and they were the only ones wearing ties."

Brian Brusokas, a cybercrimes expert with the FBI in Chicago, says he was surprised to learn that about 80% of museum thefts are orchestrated by insiders, not burglars. He and the other art agents have started visiting their regional museums and acquainting themselves with people like custodians and visiting scholars who enjoy extra access to the museum's collections. They've also changed up their crime-scene techniques. Since dusting works for fingerprints can damage their surfaces, they rely on handheld fluorescent lights to find the prints instead.

Mr. Calarco got his best on-the-job art training three years ago when the FBI's organized-crime squad in Los Angeles arrested an Eastern European man who kept a stolen Renoir in his safe at a local pawnshop. Mr. Calarco researched the painting and learned it had been taken five years earlier from Stockholm's National Museum of Fine Arts, along with a $36 million Rembrandt self-portrait. The man caught with the Renoir agreed to help the FBI track down the painting's thieves in Sweden in order to "buy" the Rembrandt in a sting. Mr. Calarco called Mr. Wittman, who stepped in as middleman for an Old Masters collector willing to pay cash, no questions asked.

That fall, the cops and robbers converged at a Copenhagen hotel. Mr. Wittman met one of the thieves in a room and showed off a satchel containing $200,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Mr. Calarco, nervous, sat in the hotel room directly overhead and watched the footage from a hidden camera. A short time later, the thief returned carrying the Rembrandt in a duffle bag, still in its museum frame. When Mr. Wittman signaled that the painting was authentic -- by using the phrase "Done deal" -- police stormed the room and Mr. Wittman grabbed the painting. Seconds later, he met Mr. Calarco in the stairwell outside. Mr. Calarco saw the artwork and remembers thinking, "This is exactly what I got into this job for."

But Mr. Wittman is having trouble stemming the farm team's high rate of turnover. So far, at least half the original art-crime team has been promoted to positions or offices outside the team's scope, forcing them to drop or reassign their art caseloads.

Mr. Wynne, the New York-based agent, says it may be unrealistic to train the entire squad to hang out, incognito, with art thieves. He thinks their investigative training matters more. "I've just never thought that undercover was the end all, be all," he says. "I meet the bad guys when I interview them."

After a lifetime in pursuit, Mr. Wittman knows his job is more gritty than glamorous. He doesn't mind. In fact, he delights in revealing the real face of art crime. In April, he spoke to a few major donors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the condition that they wouldn't take his photograph. At one point he held up a few images of Hollywood's gentlemen thieves like Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief" and Pierce Brosnan in "The Thomas Crown Affair," followed by a real-life rogue's gallery of arrested art thieves, their hair sloppy and faces sour. Grinning, he said, "Sorry, ladies."

Write to Kelly Crow at kelly.crow@wsj.com

Art Hostage comments:

Comments to follow.......

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa Stolen August 21st !!


Mona Lisa Stolen !!


On August 21, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in the world, was stolen right off the wall of the Louvre (famous museum in Paris, France). It was such an inconceivable crime, that the Mona Lisa wasn't even noticed missing until the following day.

Who would steal such a famous painting? Why did they do it? Was the Mona Lisa lost forever?

The Discovery

Everyone had been talking about the glass panes that museum officials at the Louvre had put in front of several of their most important paintings. Museum officials stated it was to help protect the paintings, especially because of recent acts of vandalism. The public and the press thought the glass was too reflective.

Louis Béroud, a painter, decided to join in the debate by painting a young French girl fixing her hair in the reflection from the pane of glass in front of the Mona Lisa.

On August 22, Béroud walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. But on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to hang, in between Correggio's Mystical Marriage and Titian's Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos, sat only four iron pegs.

Béroud contacted the section head of the guards, who thought the painting must be at the photographers'. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the section head. It was then discovered the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The section chief and other guards did a quick search of the museum -- no Mona Lisa.

Since Théophile Homolle, the museum director, was on vacation, the curator of Egyptian antiquities was contacted. He, in turn, called the Paris police. About 60 investigators were sent over to the Louvre shortly after noon. They closed the museum and slowly let out the visitors. They then continued the search.

It was finally determined that it was true -- the Mona Lisa had been stolen.

The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid the investigation. When it was reopened, a line of people had come to solemnly stare at the empty space on the wall, where the Mona Lisa had once hung. An anonymous visitor left a bouquet of flowers.1


"[Y]ou might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame," stated Théophile Homolle, museum director of the Louvre, approximately a year before the theft.2 (He was forced to resign soon after the robbery.)
The Clues

Unfortunately, there wasn't much evidence to go on. The most important discovery was found on the first day of the investigation. About an hour after the 60 investigators began searching the Louvre, they found the controversial plate of glass and Mona Lisa's frame lying in a staircase. The frame, an ancient one donated by Countess de Béarn two years prior, had not been damaged. Investigators and others speculated that the thief grabbed the painting off the wall, entered the stairwell, removed the painting from its frame, then somehow left the museum unnoticed. But when did all this take place?

Investigators began to interview guards and workers to determine when the Mona Lisa went missing. One worker remembered having seen the painting around 7 o'clock on Monday morning (a day before it was discovered missing), but noticed it gone when he walked by the Salon Carré an hour later. He had assumed a museum official had moved it.

Further research discovered that the usual guard in the Salon Carré was home (one of his children had the measles) and his replacement admitted leaving his post for a few minutes around 8 o'clock to smoke a cigarette. All of this evidence pointed to the theft occurring somewhere between 7:00 and 8:30 on Monday morning.

But on Mondays, the Louvre was closed for cleaning. So, was this an inside job? Approximately 800 people had access to the Salon Carré on Monday morning. Wandering throughout the museum were museum officials, guards, workmen, cleaners and photographers. Interviews with these people brought out very little. One person thought they had seen a stranger hanging out, but he was unable to match the stranger's face with photos at the police station.

The investigators brought in Alphonse Bertillon, a famous fingerprint expert. He found a thumbprint on the Mona Lisa's frame, but he was unable to match it with any in his files.

There was a scaffold against one side of the museum that was there to aid the installation of an elevator. This could have given access to a would-be thief to the museum.

Besides believing that the thief had to have at least some internal knowledge of the museum, there really wasn't much evidence. So, who dunnit?

Rumors and theories about the identity and motive of the thief spread like wildfire. Some Frenchmen blamed the Germans, believing the theft a ploy to demoralize their country. Some Germans thought it was a ploy by the French to distract from international concerns. The prefect of the police had his own theory:


The thieves -- I am inclined to think there were more than one -- got away with it -- all right. So far nothing is known of their identity and whereabouts. I am certain that the motive was not a political one, but maybe it is a case of 'sabotage,' brought about by discontent among the Louvre employees. Possibly, on the other hand, the theft was committed by a maniac. A more serious possibility is that La Gioconda was stolen by some one [sic] who plans to make a monetary profit by blackmailing the Government [sic].3
Other theories blamed a Louvre worker, who stole the painting in order to reveal how bad the Louvre was protecting these treasures. Still others believed the whole thing was done as a joke and that the painting would be returned anonymously shortly.

On September 7, 1911, 17 days after the theft, the French arrested Guillaume Apollinaire. Five days later, he was released. Though Apollinaire was a friend of Géry Piéret, someone who had been stealing artifacts right under the guards' noses for quite a while, there was no evidence that he had any knowledge or had in any way participated in the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Though the public was restless and the investigators were searching, the Mona Lisa did not show up. Weeks went by. Months went by. Then years went by. The latest theory was the that the painting had been accidentally destroyed during a cleaning and the museum was using the idea of a theft as a cover-up.

Two years went by with no word about the real Mona Lisa. And then the thief made contact.

In the Autumn of 1913, two years after the Mona Lisa was stolen, a well-known antique dealer, Alfredo Geri, innocently placed an ad in several Italian newspapers which stated that he was "a buyer at good prices of art objects of every sort." 4

Soon after he placed the ad, Geri received a letter dated November 29 (1913), that stated the writer was in possession of the stolen Mona Lisa. The letter had a post office box in Paris as a return address and had been signed only as "Leonardo."

Though Geri thought he was dealing with someone who had a copy rather than the real Mona Lisa, he contacted Commendatore Giovanni Poggi, museum director of the Uffizi (museum in Florence, Italy). Together, they decided that Geri would write a letter in return saying that he would need to see the painting before he could offer a price.

Another letter came almost immediately asking Geri to go to Paris to see the painting. Geri replied, stating that he could not go to Paris, but, instead, arranged for "Leonardo" to meet him in Milan on December 22.

On December 10, 1913, an Italian man with a mustache appeared at Geri's sales office in Florence. After waiting for other customers to leave, the stranger told Geri that he was Leonardo Vincenzo and that he had the Mona Lisa back in his hotel room. Leonardo stated that he wanted a half million lire for the painting. Leonardo explained that he had stolen the painting in order to restore to Italy what had been stolen from it by Napoleon. Thus, Leonardo made the stipulation that the Mona Lisa was to be hung at the Uffizi and never given back to France.

With some quick, clear thinking, Geri agreed to the price but said the director of the Uffizi would want to see the painting before agreeing to hang it in the museum. Leonardo then suggested they meet in his hotel room the next day.

Upon his leaving, Geri contacted the police and the Uffizi.

The Return

The following day, Geri and Poggi (the museum director) appeared at Leonardo's hotel room. Leonardo pulled out a wooden trunk. After opening the trunk, Leonardo pulled out a pair of underwear, some old shoes, and a shirt. Then Leonardo removed a false bottom -- and there lay the Mona Lisa.

Geri and the museum director noticed and recognized the Louvre seal on the back of the painting. This was obviously the real Mona Lisa.

The museum director said that he would need to compare the painting with other works by Leonardo da Vinci. They then walked out with the painting.

Leonardo Vincenzo, whose real name was Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested.

The story of the caper was actually much simpler than many had theorized. Vincenzo Peruggia, born in Italy, had worked in Paris at the Louvre in 1908. Still known by many of the guards, Peruggia had walked into the museum, noticed the Salon Carré empty, grabbed the Mona Lisa, went to the staircase, removed the painting from its frame, and walked out of the museum with the Mona Lisa under his painters smock.

Peruggia hadn't had a plan to dispose of the painting; his only goal was to return it to Italy.

The public went wild at the news of finding the Mona Lisa. The painting was displayed throughout Italy before it was returned to France on December 30, 1913.




Art Hostage comments:

How many of you missed a heart-beat before realising this is just the 97th anniversary of the infamous Mona Lisa theft of 1911 ???

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Cezanne Guilty Proves Reward for Stolen Art Recovery Impossible !!


Ex-lawyer found guilty in stolen art trial
Lawyer Had discovered paintings in 1980

A former Watertown lawyer was convicted yesterday of possessing six Impressionist paintings that he knew were stolen in what is believed to be the largest private art theft in Massachusetts history.

After deliberating about three hours, a US District Court jury in Boston found Robert M. Mardirosian guilty of taking the six paintings, which had allegedly been stolen by one of his clients from a house in the Berkshires in 1978, and storing them in Europe.

Mardirosian, 74, who faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, sat impassively as each of the 12 jurors individually agreed with the verdict in response to a defense request to poll the jury.

"I expected it," the silver-haired, mustachioed defendant told a reporter outside the courtroom afterward. But, he added, "I think we've got a good appeal."

Assistant US Attorney Jonathan F. Mitchell asked US Chief District Judge Mark L. Wolf to immediately detain Mardirosian, who has been on home confinement in East Falmouth and is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 18. Mitchell said Mardirosian poses a risk of flight because he faces a potentially long sentence.

Brian Fitzsimmons, one of Mardirosian's lawyers, countered that Mardirosian voluntarily returned to the United States from France in February 2007 to surrender to authorities and has never missed a court date. He also said his client has a good chance of getting his conviction overturned on appeal.

Wolf scheduled a hearing for today at 10 a.m. to hear further arguments after securing a promise from Mardirosian to return to court.

"I'll be here, your honor," Mardirosian told Wolf.

Mardirosian allegedly tried to sell millions of dollars worth of paintings, including a major Cezanne piece called "Bouilloire et Fruits," that were stolen from Michael Bakwin's house in Stockbridge. A total of seven paintings were allegedly stolen by a Mardirosian client, David Colvin of Pittsfield.

Colvin was shot to death in 1979, but he left the seven paintings behind in an office loft owned by Mardirosian, who discovered them in 1980, according to court documents.

Mardirosian, who was allegedly told by Colvin that the paintings were stolen, did not try to return them, but instead stored them in Switzerland. In 1999, using a shell company and lawyers, Mardirosian returned the Cezanne to Bakwin in exchange for title to the six other paintings, which are much less valuable, according to records and testimony.

On the first day of testimony last Tuesday, Bakwin testified that he considered the agreement to be extortion but wanted the Cezanne back.

However, Mardirosian's lawyers have contended that their client wanted only to collect a finder's fee for recovering the valuable Cezanne. They also said Bakwin had a year to challenge the validity of the 1999 agreement but did not.

After recovering the Cezanne, Bakwin auctioned it off at Sotheby's for $29.3 million.

In 2005, the indictment says, Mardirosian, though an intermediary, had four of the other six stolen paintings transferred from Geneva to Sotheby's London auction house in preparation for a sale. The estimated market value of the paintings ranged from $70,000 to $500,000 apiece, according to the indictment, although Mardirosian's lawyers said those figures are far too high.

But in May 2005, Bakwin, with the help of the Art Loss Register, sued Sotheby's in a London court to halt the sale.

The lawsuit and the public disclosure of Mardirosian's name in connection with the paintings prompted the federal investigation that culminated with Mardirosian's surrender in February 2007.

The criminal trial focused on whether Mardirosian illegally possessed any of the paintings in the five years prior to his indictment in March 2007. The statute of limitations for other offenses had passed.

Bakwin recovered the four paintings that were scheduled to be auctioned off in London. The other two paintings that had remained in Switzerland are in the hands of US authorities in Boston.

One of Mardirosian's other lawyers, Jeanne M. Kempthorne, told jurors in her closing argument that she was not defending her client's failure to notify Bakwin for decades that he had possession of the paintings.

The key issue, Kempthorne said, was the legal status of the paintings after 2002.

At that point, she said, Mardirosian believed he legitimately owned them because of the 1999 agreement. She said Wolf's instructions for their deliberations had scanted that consideration.

"The judge took away the issue of whether these paintings were still stolen," Kempthorne said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

Art Hostage comments;

Well, there we have it, another demonstration that any attempt to collect a reward or finders fee with regards stolen art is impossible.

Congratulations to FBI Agent Geoff Kelly and a warning to those with inside information about stolen art.

Now do you believe there is no reward money for helping to recover stolen art ??

What more proof is needed ??

Anyone with information about stolen art should think very carefully before sharing it with anyone, better still just keep it to yourself and stay safe.

Seems those who are reluctant to hand back the stolen Gardner art for fear of not getting the public reward offered and fear of prosecution have been resoundingly vindicated !!!

More to follow.................

Monday, August 18, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Cezanne Acquittal could Trigger Gardner art Recovery !!



One charge dismissed in art theft case against Watertown lawyer

The Cezanne painting at the middle of the dispute, above.

http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2008/08/one_charge_dism.html
By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff

A federal judge today dismissed one of two charges against a former Watertown lawyer who is on trial for allegedly trying to sell paintings he knew were stolen in one of the largest private art thefts in Massachusetts history.

US Chief District Judge Mark L. Wolf threw out a charge of transportation of stolen property against Robert M. Mardirosian because the transfer of four paintings stolen from a house in the Berkshires in 1978 occurred years later between Switzerland and England, and federal statutes do not apply, said Mardirosian's lawyer, Jeanne M. Kempthorne.

Mardirosian still faces a charge of possessing or concealing stolen property. The case is expected to go to a Boston jury later this afternoon. The trial began a week ago.

Mardirosian allegedly tried to sell millions of dollars worth of paintings, including a major work by Cezanne, that were stolen from Michael Bakwin's house in Stockbridge in 1978. The paintings were allegedly stolen by Mardirosian's law client, David Colvin.

Colvin was shot to death in 1979 but left the seven paintings behind in an office loft owned by Mardirosian, who discovered them in 1980, according to court records.

Mardirosian, who was told by Colvin that the paintings were stolen, did not try to return them, but instead had them stored in Switzerland. In 1999, using a shell company and lawyers, Mardirosian handed over the Cezanne in return for title to the six other, much less valuable paintings, according to records and testimony.

Bakwin testified last week that he considered the agreement extortion. But Mardirosian's lawyers have contended that their client wanted only to collect a finder's fee for the paintings.

Art Hostage comments:

If Mr Mardirosian is found not guilty on the remaining charge this could prove to be a window of opportunity for recovering the stolen Gardner art.

Why, well it means a deal can be brokered and as long as the stolen art is recovered from a neutral place without arrests, Catholic church confession box, claims for the public reward offered, $5 million could follow.

So, whilst a conviction may satisfy some, it could be counter productive in recovering the stolen Gardner art.

O'h and for good measure I am sure Mr Mardirosian would follow up his acquittal by launching his own legal action to recover a fee for the Cezanne recovery.

I feel an Art Hostage plan coming on, September when Bob Wittman has retired, Anthony Amore and Bob Wittman can use this potential acquittal to secure the stolen Gardner art.

A fitting way for Bob Wittman to enter the private sector.
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Update:
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Brazil police recover stolen Picasso print
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http://www.reuters.com/article/artsNews/idUSN1846029520080818

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian police have recovered a Pablo Picasso print that was stolen with three other valuable artworks from Sao Paulo's Pinacoteca Museum in broad daylight in June.

The print, "Minotaur, Drinker and Women," was found on Friday night at an undisclosed location in the west of Sao Paulo, a spokesman for the city's Public Security Secretariat said on Monday, without providing further details.

The 1933 print by the late Spanish artist was stolen on June 12 by three armed robbers, who calmly strolled into the Pinacoteca Museum in downtown Sao Paulo and held security guards at gunpoint while they completed the heist.

They also made off with another Picasso print, "The Painter and the Model," from 1963, and two famous works by Lasar Segall and Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, both prominent Brazilian artists in the 20th century.

The police already recovered those pieces and arrested two suspects.

The robbery marked the second time in less than a year that works by Picasso were stolen from museums in Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city.

In December, his "Portrait of Suzanne Bloch" was snatched from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art along with "The Coffee Worker" by Candido Portinari, another revered Brazilian painter.

Police recovered the paintings and arrested two suspects a few weeks later.

(Reporting by Fernanda Ezabella, Writing by Todd Benson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Art Hostage comments;

Told you it was local.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, FBI Icon Robert Wittman Retires, Private Sector Overhaul to Follow !!




Most art lovers appreciate Philadelphia's importance to cultural and historical preservation, although its conservatory role extends beyond its borders.

It is embodied not only in the city's museums, universities and galleries, but also in the office of an institution no less significant to area residents: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"They represent icons of cultural history," Special Agent Robert K. Wittman said of the $225 million worth of art items he's played a role in recovering over his 20 years as in the bureau. He serves as the FBI's top investigator and coordinator in cases involving art theft and art fraud and works with the Violent Crimes Task Force at the FBI Regional Field Office.

Born in Baltimore in 1955, Mr. Wittman developed a fascination with art growing up the son of antiques storeowners. A man of cheerful countenance, he continues to love visual artworks, particularly the works of Monet as well as the countryside and the seascapes of Renoir. He admires the impressionists most of all but enjoys masters of other stripes like Picasso.

Herb Lottier, director of protection services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a retired Philadelphia Police captain, describes the special agent, with whom he has worked closely, as an unfailingly jovial presence.

"He's an entertainer as well as an investigator - the best of both worlds," Mr. Lottier said. "He has the right outlook on life."

Although Mr. Wittman plans to retire in September and thereafter work as a consultant to art security firms, he could certainly have imagined a duller living than safeguarding cultural treasures for future generations.

He conducted his first major art-recovery operations in 1988. That year, a bandit stole a crystal ball that once belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi from the Asian wing of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in the middle of the night. The centerpiece of the museum, it is the second largest crystal ball in the world.

Also in 1988, a robber had stolen Auguste Rodin's 1860s piece "Man With a Broken Nose" from the Rodin Museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The piece turned up under a hot-water heater on Pine Street.

After helping retrieve both pieces, Mr. Wittman's bosses at the FBI decided he'd be the right person to put in charge of art crime investigations. The bureau paid for his formal arts training and now the agent lectures across the world to museums, art institutes and law enforcement agencies. He has spoken at the American Association of Museums Annual Conference and the International Conference on Cultural Property Protection in Cuzco, Peru.

The cases he handled since only heightened in profile and broadened in geographic scope. One afternoon in Dec. 2000, armed and masked thieves took two Renoirs and a famous Rembrandt self-portrait from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm.

A team of Swedish and American agents led by Mr. Wittman met with four men in possession of the Rembrandt, valued at $36 million, at a hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. Posing as buyers, they offered to purchase the painting and arrested the four - two Iraqis, a Gambian and a Swede.

But why help solve art-theft cases for foreign governments? Mr. Wittman explains that because of the intricacies of international cultural crime, American authorities can draw important connections to domestic cases, build relationships with foreign agencies and find leads on investigations into other illicit commerce.

"Art belongs to the whole world," he said. "[These other countries] are our partners and that crosses over into other crimes we would investigate together. It just fosters that strong relationship."

Art investigations sometimes yield more recovered items than the authorities expect. After an armed daytime robbery deprived a Zimbabwe museum of tribal masks dating back hundreds of years, a group of Polish and American agents organized a sting operation in Warsaw, Poland. Mr. Wittman portrayed himself to the thieves as an African art dealer, proceeded with the arrests and repossessed a cache of stolen items from various international galleries including masks, diamonds, elephant tusks and other ivory carvings.

Among the most prominent cases the agent has handled was the retrieval of one of the original 14 copies of the Bill of Rights in 2003. That year, a family who possessed the document for over a century had offered to sell it to the newly founded National Constitution Center.

During the authentication process, the FBI discovered it to have been stolen from the statehouse in South Carolina in 1865 by one of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's soldiers. The family that had kept the document tried repeatedly to sell it back to South Carolina, but the state continued to insist it would not buy stolen property.

Now the fourth largest international crime in the world, art theft has only become more widespread in recent years as many works have appreciated in value. And it has been a particularly pronounced issue in a major cultural center like Philadelphia. Bureau agents here continue their investigation into the theft of John A. Woodside's 1840s painting "Fairmount Water Works," estimated to be worth $75,000, from the Philadelphia Park Systems office at 1515 Arch St.

"Unfortunately, Philadelphia has had its share of museum art theft," Mr. Wittman said.

About nine out of 10 of the theft cases on which he works involve undercover service. As someone with virtually optimum proficiency in matters of both culture and law enforcement, agencies abroad find him a man of extreme utility, FBI Special Agent John Kitzinger said.

Mr. Kitzinger oversees the task force alongside which Mr. Wittman works. As art crime won't slow down for Mr. Wittman's departure, the task force head is grateful his colleague will remain nearby to provide assistance.

"He's going to make it easy for us because he's not going anywhere," Mr. Kitzinger said. "Bob's always going to be available. We can always draw on his expertise."

Left in place will be a team of 13 agents formed in 2005 with Mr. Wittman as its original leader. Mr. Lottier said he has every confidence in the team's ability to carry on its duties even as he's sad to see the special agent go.

"It'll be a serious loss for the area, particularly the Philadelphia area, as well as nationally," Mr. Lottier said. "But life goes on. He's left a good team in place. He's leaving us in very, very capable hands."

Special Agent in Charge Janice Fedarcyk said once Mr. Wittman leaves, another agent will step into his position after undergoing arts training. John Hess is one special agent the bureau is acquainting with many of Mr. Wittman's duties as an art investigator and who may take over his senior agent's work in full, she said.

Ms. Fedarcyk expressed profound appreciation to her retiring colleague.

"Bob is a consummate professional to work with," she said. "He really is regarded worldwide as a premier expert in these areas."

As much as Mr. Wittman's friends in the bureau and in the legal community value his expertise and work ethic, most also speak well of his personal demeanor.

"Working with him is actually a lot of fun," said Bob Goldman, a law partner with Fox Rothschild and a former federal prosecutor who has worked with the agent since the late 1980s.

Mr. Wittman looks upon his leaving the bureau with both brightness and contemplation.

"It's good to move on, but I'll miss the FBI," he said. "I'm looking forward to future challenges."

Bradley Vasoli can be reached at bvasoli@thebulletin.us.

Art Hostage comments:

Bob, please don't think you can rest on your laurels for long, a quick two week break before you must return to art related crime arena to clean up the private sector.

Gone will be the days of dishonest golden hello's and false reward payment offers made by those currently working in the private art loss recovery business.

Bob Wittman brings truthfulness and honesty that will be made clear to potential informants about the realistic chances of receiving any reward payments.

I can honestly say Bob Wittman has always been truthful about the Gardner Heist and the return of the stolen artworks.

Bob Wittman has always said any, I repeat any recovery of the stolen Gardner artworks must be done on the basis of no, I repeat no, pre-conditions.

Whilst this may have prevented the recovery of some Gardner artworks, it sends a message that the return of stolen art is done with the odds always stacked in the authorities favour.

If any reward is ever to be paid it will be post recovery and at the discretion of the insurance company or the victim, with Law Enforcement approval.

The amount of reward will only ever be a tiny amount unless the case is challenged through the court system and the Judge directs a bigger payment.

Until both the Da Vinci Madonna entrapment trial and the legal proceedings taken by Mr Fieldon against Mark Dalrymple and the insurance company are concluded anyone with information about stolen art should refrain from coming forward.

Once concluded, it will be much clearer to potential informants the likelihood of any reward payment.

Upon another note, does anyone know when the Da Vinci Madonna trial is to begin ???

Have any of the Da Vinci Madonna accused appeared in court recently ???

Does anyone know when the Mr Fieldon legal action is to take place ??
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-Update:
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Bernie Ternus, recently arrested in Miami for the French armed art heist sting has been quoted to say:
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"If I was going to be stung, then being stung by Le Bob Wittman would have been my Sting of choice, in some ways my arrest has been made easier by the fact Le Bob Wittman was behind it"

to be continued.................

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Irish Loyalist Paramilitaries Caught With Stolen Paintings, Maybe !!


Art Hostage may have some breaking news concerning Irish Loyalist Paramilitaries being caught with stolen paintings ??

Things are a bit confused, this may be a historic pronouncement within Underworld circles.

Could be a false alarm but wouldn't it be a turn up for the books if the Stolen Gardner art was recovered off Irish Loyalist Paramilitaries, rather than those who may have Irish Republican leanings.

This whole Gardner Heist investigation is one of going up the hill like the Grand Old Duke of York, then promptly marching back down again.

To be continued.................
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Update:
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The stolen Newby table is rumoured to be in play and negotiations are continuing on the Lowry's

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Johnson Clan Scapegoats for Every Art Theft on Record !! Update !



























Jailed: Stately home gang 'who carried out Britain's biggest burglary' in £80m crime spree

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1042133/Jailed-Stately-home-gang-carried-Britains-biggest-burglary-80m-crime-spree.html

By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 2:09 PM on 06th August 2008

Five members of a gang behind a string of raids on stately homes - including Britain's biggest ever burglary - have been jailed for up to 11 years each.

The 'organised and ruthless' group, all part of the same notorious traveller family, stole priceless antiques which experts estimate could be worth more than £80 million.

A court heard that the gang targeted a number of wealthy homes across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Worcestershire where they knew there would be 'rich pickings' during a year-long spree.

The men would stake out the country mansions, sometimes for weeks, pinpointing the best means of entry and escape.

Then they would strike - breaking in wearing balaclavas, scouring rooms and escaping in stolen cars within minutes while leaving little or no trace.

Their targets included the Wiltshire mansion of property tycoon Harry Hyams, where they stole property worth millions in a raid described later as the UK's biggest ever private house burglary.
Other victims included Formula One motor racing advertising tycoon Paddy McNally and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Sir Philip Wroughton.

Those behind the raids were part of the Johnson family - an organised criminal gang who detectives say have plagued the South of England for 20 years.

Richard 'Chad' Johnson, 33, and Daniel O'Loughlin, 32, were both jailed for 11 years, Michael Nicholls, 29, was given 10 years, Albi Johnson, 25, was jailed for nine years and 54-year-old Ricky Johnson was given eight years.

They were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary between April 8, 2005 and October 13, 2006 following a month-long trial at Reading Crown Court.

They were sentenced in January but the case can be reported for the first time today following the conclusion of other cases against the family.

Ricky Johnson is the father of Chad and Albi and O'Loughlin is his nephew. Nicholls was the partner of his daughter, Faye. The family were based at a static caravan park in Evesham, Worcestershire, where they plotted the high-value raids.

A jury heard that some properties were burgled while the householders were inside and on one occasion two victims sat in their kitchen completely unaware the raid was taking place.

Paul Reid, prosecuting, said they were an "extensive and highly organised gang" who were "ruthless in their intention to acquire high-value property" from country houses.

They hit the home of Mr Hyams - Ramsbury Manor near Marlborough in Wiltshire - in February 2006.

Mr Reid said: "This has been described as the most valuable domestic burglary ever committed in this country. The collection is described as priceless.

"There is a difficulty in putting a value on antiques and antiquities - some of them very precious and very rare - but it is tens of millions of pounds."

When police arrested the gang, they estimated the haul was worth £30 million. Sources in the art world say the figure is closer to £80 million.

Two months after the Ramsbury raid, detectives found an Aladdin's cave of treasures in an underground bunker at a field owned by an associate of the Johnsons near Stratford-upon-Avon.
Inside were a number of black bins containing straw and numerous pieces of porcelain stolen from the Hyams estate - about a third of the total haul. Some of the priceless antiques had been damaged.

Among other targets were Warneford Place, the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming, set in 1,000 acres in Sevenhampton near Swindon and owned by Mr McNally, who once dated the Duchess of York.

Sir Philip Wroughton and his wife had items worth £100,000 stolen when the gang burgled their country home in Chaddleworth, Berkshire, twice in 12 months.

Lord and Lady Sandys lost a £1,000 carriage clock when their home, Ombersley Court in Droitwich, Worcestershire, was targeted.

Antiques worth £26,000 were taken from Ramsbury Hill House in Marlborough while the owners were watching TV in their kitchen, unaware their home was being burgled.

During a raid on Stanton Harcourt Manor, a 14th century country home in Witney, Oxfordshire, owned by the Gascoigne family, Albi Johnson leapt from a first-floor window to escape when challenged, breaking both legs in the process.

He was admitted to hospital in Cheltenham within 45 minutes of the burglary and claimed to officers that he had fallen off his brother's garage roof.

Up to £50,000 worth of antiques, jewellery and porcelain had been taken.

Shops were also targeted and in one night the gang stole a £140,000 haul of expensive TVs, Waterford crystal, Royal Doulton china and kitchenware from three stores in Worcestershire.

Ricky Johnson, Chad Johnson and O'Loughlin also stood trial for conspiracy to burgle another country home, Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where a masked gang stole £5 million worth of rare snuff boxes in 2003.

The trial collapsed after the judge ruled that certain evidence could not be included and a prosecution challenge to that ruling failed in the High Court.

Detectives from five police forces took part in a huge investigation, codenamed Operation Haul, to nail the Johnsons, who they said were "forensically aware" and adept at covering their tracks.

The gang all had a string of previous convictions for offences including burglary, deception, handling stolen goods and stealing metal.

The family's reputation was such that they even had a BBC documentary called Summer With The Johnsons made about them and their antics.

Chad Johnson was previously jailed for marrying an heiress twice his age, stealing her £250,000 inheritance and leaving her bankrupt.

Judge Christopher Critchlow, sentencing the gang for the country house raids, told them the way they had mocked police was "indicative of your attitude to the law".

He said: "Cases of this gravity must attract heavy sentences because of the deliberate criminality, organisation and sophistication of their planning and the effect on the occupants.

"This must be one of the most serious examples of conspiracy to burgle ever to come before the court, considering the amounts involved.

"Little of the property has been recovered and is no doubt well hidden in the countryside or passed on for disposal.

"You have no respect for people's property or the law so I have no alternative but to impose severe sentences."

'Ruthless' Johnson Gang jailed for string of stately home raids
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Five members of a gang behind a string of raids on stately homes - including Britain's biggest ever burglary - have been jailed for up to 11 years each, it can be reported today.

The "organised and ruthless" group, all part of the same notorious traveller family, stole priceless antiques which experts estimate could be worth more than £80 million.

A court heard that the gang targeted a number of wealthy homes across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Worcestershire where they knew there would be "rich pickings" during a year-long spree.

The men would stake out the country mansions, sometimes for weeks, pinpointing the best means of entry and escape.

Then they would strike - breaking in wearing balaclavas, scouring rooms and escaping in stolen cars within minutes while leaving little or no trace.

Their targets included the Wiltshire mansion of property tycoon Harry Hyams, where they stole property worth millions in a raid described later as the UK's biggest ever private house burglary.

Other victims included Formula One motor racing advertising tycoon Paddy McNally and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Sir Philip Wroughton.

Those behind the raids were part of the Johnson family - an organised criminal gang who detectives say have plagued the South of England for 20 years.

Richard "Chad" Johnson, 33, and Daniel O'Loughlin, 32, were both jailed for 11 years, Michael Nicholls, 29, was given 10 years, Albi Johnson, 25, was jailed for nine years and 54-year-old Ricky Johnson was given eight years.

They were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary between April 8, 2005 and October 13, 2006 following a month-long trial at Reading Crown Court.

They were sentenced in January but the case can be reported for the first time today following the conclusion of other cases against the family.

Ricky Johnson is the father of Chad and Albi and O'Loughlin is his nephew. Nicholls was the partner of his daughter, Faye. The family were based at a static caravan park in Evesham, Worcestershire, where they plotted the high-value raids.

A jury heard that some properties were burgled while the householders were inside and on one occasion two victims sat in their kitchen completely unaware the raid was taking place.

Paul Reid, prosecuting, said they were an "extensive and highly organised gang" who were "ruthless in their intention to acquire high-value property" from country houses.

They hit the home of Mr Hyams - Ramsbury Manor near Marlborough in Wiltshire - in February 2006.

Mr Reid said: "This has been described as the most valuable domestic burglary ever committed in this country. The collection is described as priceless.

"There is a difficulty in putting a value on antiques and antiquities - some of them very precious and very rare - but it is tens of millions of pounds."

When police arrested the gang, they estimated the haul was worth £30 million. Sources in the art world say the figure is closer to £80 million.

Two months after the Ramsbury raid, detectives found an Aladdin's cave of treasures in an underground bunker at a field owned by an associate of the Johnsons near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Inside were a number of black bins containing straw and numerous pieces of porcelain stolen from the Hyams estate - about a third of the total haul. Some of the priceless antiques had been damaged.

Among other targets were Warneford Place, the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming, set in 1,000 acres in Sevenhampton near Swindon and owned by Mr McNally, who once dated the Duchess of York.

Sir Philip Wroughton and his wife had items worth £100,000 stolen when the gang burgled their country home in Chaddleworth, Berkshire, twice in 12 months.

Lord and Lady Sandys lost a £1,000 carriage clock when their home, Ombersley Court in Droitwich, Worcestershire, was targeted.

Antiques worth £26,000 were taken from Ramsbury Hill House in Marlborough while the owners were watching TV in their kitchen, unaware their home was being burgled.

During a raid on Stanton Harcourt Manor, a 14th century country home in Witney, Oxfordshire, owned by the Gascoigne family, Albi Johnson leapt from a first-floor window to escape when challenged, breaking both legs in the process.

He was admitted to hospital in Cheltenham within 45 minutes of the burglary and claimed to officers that he had fallen off his brother's garage roof.

Up to £50,000 worth of antiques, jewellery and porcelain had been taken.

Shops were also targeted and in one night the gang stole a £140,000 haul of expensive TVs, Waterford crystal, Royal Doulton china and kitchenware from three stores in Worcestershire.

Ricky Johnson, Chad Johnson and O'Loughlin also stood trial for conspiracy to burgle another country home, Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where a masked gang stole £5 million worth of rare snuff boxes in 2003.

The trial collapsed after the judge ruled that certain evidence could not be included and a prosecution challenge to that ruling failed in the High Court.

Detectives from five police forces took part in a huge investigation, codenamed Operation Haul, to nail the Johnsons, who they said were "forensically aware" and adept at covering their tracks.

The gang all had a string of previous convictions for offences including burglary, deception, handling stolen goods and stealing metal.

The family's reputation was such that they even had a BBC documentary called Summer With The Johnsons made about them and their antics.

Chad Johnson was previously jailed for marrying an heiress twice his age, stealing her £250,000 inheritance and leaving her bankrupt.

Judge Christopher Critchlow, sentencing the gang for the country house raids, told them the way they had mocked police was "indicative of your attitude to the law".

He said: "Cases of this gravity must attract heavy sentences because of the deliberate criminality, organisation and sophistication of their planning and the effect on the occupants.

"This must be one of the most serious examples of conspiracy to burgle ever to come before the court, considering the amounts involved.

"Little of the property has been recovered and is no doubt well hidden in the countryside or passed on for disposal.

"You have no respect for people's property or the law so I have no alternative but to impose severe sentences."

An order reporting the banning the case was lifted today after O'Loughlin pleaded guilty to a burglary in which a cash dispenser containing nearly £55,000 was ripped from the wall of a Co-op store in Stanford-in-the-Vale, Oxfordshire, on New Year's Day 2006.

A further charge of conspiracy to steal involving a number of similar raids on cash machines across the Thames Valley was ordered to be left on file.

O'Loughlin was given a 66-month sentence for the burglary by Judge Critchlow sitting at Guildford Crown Court to run concurrently with the jail term for the country house raids.
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Art Hostage comments:
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There are two sides to this story.
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Much more to come.................................................
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Update:
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Head of the Johnson Clan Alan "Jimmy" Johnson is about to be released from jail, if not already.
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Straight to the Dorchester hotel London to celebrate his freedom, before heading to the Mansion House to declare:
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"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."