Experts disagree over whether paying for information leading to the recovery of stolen art might actually encourage more thefts
On the night of July 28, 1994, after the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt had closed for the night, a security guard was grabbed by a masked man. A second man handcuffed him and bound his eyes with tape. The thugs pushed him into a closet and warned him to keep quiet.
They took two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, Shade and Darkness—the Evening of the Deluge and Light and Color, and a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The Turners had been lent for an exhibition by the Tate Gallery in London. The Friedrich belonged to the Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Another guard who was unable to reach his colleague by radio set off the gallery’s alarm. The thugs ran through the delivery entrance and escaped in a stolen car.
Nearly nine years later, and after the Tate had shelled out almost $5 million for legal fees, travel, and expenses for information leading to the recovery of the Turners, the paintings were back on the walls in London.
The story of the investigation takes up the major part of Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners by Sandy Nairne, who coordinated the recovery. He was then director of programs for the Tate and is now director of London’s National Portrait Gallery. Nairne also explores other famous thefts, speculates about why thieves steal well-known works of art that cannot be sold, and raises ethical questions relating to fees and payments in art-recovery operations.
This is an engrossing volume, published by Reaktion Books Ltd., with behind-the-scenes stories of an incredibly complicated recovery that included not only the Tate but also Scotland Yard, Britain’s High Court, the Department for National Heritage, the Charity Commission, and the Attorney General’s Office, as well as the Frankfurt Prosecutor’s Office and the German Federal Criminal Police.
Theories about the thieves vary, Nairne writes. The most unusual was put forth by a critic who implied that there are links between possessive behavior in relation to high-value works of art and male sexual conquest.
The key questions in the book are: When is a reward not a reward? Was the Tate, as the Times of London put it, too eager to reward the thieves and the sellers of the Turners? And did the institution pay a price that will encourage future art thefts?
Nairne writes: “Offering rewards or paying for information leading to recoveries, like the use of registered informers, is part of police practice and distinct from an individual or institution simply offering to buy back a stolen work. Rewards, however, need great care as to the conditions under which they should be paid to ensure that they do not benefit criminals involved in a robbery.”
I asked two of the world’s top private investigators—Charles Hill, who was once an important member of Scotland Yard’s fabled Art and Antiques Squad, and Robert Wittman, who headed the FBI’s Art Crime Team—about the case.
Hill said: “Sandy Nairne would have passed muster as a medieval scholastic philosopher meditating on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But back to paying rewards: it is the only practical way to recover priceless paintings stolen by dangerous philistines. The payment has to be reasonable and legal, and it must be done in such a way that it lessens the chances of encouraging the bastards to steal more priceless pictures or other works of art. I think Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota [director of the Tate] satisfied those criteria.
“There is a dilemma between paying crooks money for the return of stolen things that may reward their crookery and the human need to have an esthetic value for works of art, in particular to be stewards, in a biblical sense, of those that need to be preserved.
“Generally we cannot allow criminals to benefit from their property crimes. However, that must be balanced by our moral duty to preserve great works of art for posterity as best we can. In our civilized global society, we have to make exceptions to our belief that crime must not pay. Recoveries therefore must be proportionate activities where the recovery is not done at any cost, but realistically at some cost.”
Wittman said: “Paying a reward with no questions asked creates crime. A prime example of this occurred in Britain some years ago when the same paintings were stolen over and over again. Insurance companies were paying rewards to criminals and third-party negotiators.”
He added: “We use offers of rewards all the time. And they would be paid if the people are not part of the crime. I recently offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of a Renoir stolen in Texas.”
Richard Ellis, another alumnus of the Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad, has some reservations about rewards. He spoke at a conference sponsored by AXA Art Insurance several years ago. “There can be a serious downside to the advertising of rewards,” Ellis said, “and their indiscriminate use has in the past acted only to encourage criminals to commit more thefts in the mistaken belief that the reward offered is little more than a price tag and that they will in effect be able to sell back the stolen art to the owners or to their insurers. There is a fine line between paying a genuine informant a reward for information given, and the use of a reward to buy back stolen property and for the investigator it is an area that is legally fraught and requires great care.”
Nairne writes that many people take a hard line and “argue that any kind of payment is bad in principle and comparable to human hostage cases where any payment is seen as wrong, since it encourages more hostage taking.”
He quotes Vernon Rapley, former head of the Art and Antiques Squad, as saying that “we should not negotiate with these people.”
Rapley said: “A reward which is subject to proper conditions and leads to a successful conviction still has a place—but that is the practice in this country, whereas in some countries they are willing to pay for the return of stolen property with very few further questions being asked. And it is continually tried here.”
Three men were convicted of the Turner thefts and received sentences ranging from two to eight years. Two men accused of providing keys to the Schirn Kunsthalle were acquitted.
The paintings had been insured in 1994 for about $18 million each. In 1996, after the theft, insurers paid about $36 million to the Tate, and title to the works passed to the insurance company. In 1998, the Tate took a gamble and paid back about $13 million to the insurers for ownership rights. The Tate then received permission from the High Court in England to spend about $5 million of the insurance payout to fund the recovery.
The Turners were said to be recovered in good condition except for “a slight abrasion or two.” The Friedrich was returned in 2003 through a lawyer acting as intermediary. He was reported to have been paid a fee.
Not all claims of rewards for information leading to a recovery of stolen paintings are successful. In 2006, a painting by Goya was stolen from a truck en route from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The truck was parked at the Howard Johnson Inn near Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, when the theft took place.
“A reward of up to $50,000 was put out for information leading to the recovery,” Wittman told me. “A week later, we got a call from an attorney. He said he had a client who had found the Goya hidden in a wall in his basement. His story was that his son-in-law had stolen it. We found out that the night of the theft the son-in-law was actually in jail. And this guy had stolen it. Actually, he had been stealing construction tools, and he thought the crate with the Goya had had construction tools. He got seven years.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.