Recovering stolen art

August 10 2011

Image of Recovering stolen art

Picture: TAN

In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey has an interesting interview with Sandy Nairne. Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, has published a fascinating book detailing his intimate involvement in the recovery of two Turners stolen in 1994, when he worked for Tate. In a nutshell, here are the details of the case:

  • The pictures, Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour (both 1843), were stolen in Frankfurt, where they were on loan.
  • The Tate received a £24m insurance payout. 
  • In 1998, the Tate paid the insurers £8m to buy back title to the pictures, should they ever be recovered.
  • Between 2000 and 2002, Tate paid £3.5m in fees and monies via a German lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, This was 'a fee for information leading to the recovery' of the pictures. Nairne handled the tense negotiations.
  • Both pictures were returned. The Tate made a profit of £12.5m, not including the interest on the £24m capital, which it was allowed to keep. [More below]

From TAN:

Nairne’s book emphasises that the key to the operation was a Frankfurt lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, who appeared to be in contact with whoever then held the paintings. In July 1999 he offered to secure the recovery of the two paintings for a payment of DM10m (then £3.2m), or roughly 10% of the then open market value. This money would be handed on to his underworld contacts.

The key authorities, the German prosecutor’s office and the Metropolitan Police, authorised the payment. UK legal authority was given in a secret High Court hearing under judge Sir Francis Ferris on 28 April 2000 (his sub judice judgment was subsequently released in 2005). The two paintings were handed over in separate operations, with the first coming back after a year of difficult negotiations.

On 19 July 2000, in Liebrucks’ Frankfurt apartment, Nairne was handed Shade and Darkness after arranging a payment of DM5m. [...]

It sounds exciting stuff. Nairne is clearly a genius negotiator. There are two key things we can deduce from the case:

  1. The insurers were mugs.
  2. Tate paid a ransom for the paintings.

The Tate maintains that the money was not paid as a ransom but 'for information leading to the recovery' of the pictures. This is, and always will be, phooey. Liebrucks is known to have represented the criminal suspected of being behind the theft. When negotiating with Liebrucks, Tate were aware that he was 'in direct contact with those who now had possession of the paintings.' So there could have been no doubt that the money would be paid to criminals. (In English law at least, handling stolen goods can carry a greater penalty than stealing them.) The money was not paid for 'information'. There was no mystical sleuth who eventually tracked down the paintings.

So arguably Tate has encouraged the future theft of artworks. There is now a tidy industry in stealing high-value paintings and extracting ransoms disguised as 'fees'. The UK government maintains that it is never permissable to pay ransoms when people are kidnapped. But apparently it's ok for pictures.

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