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Friday, December 01, 2017

Stolen Art Watch, Media's Facination With Art Crime Slows December 2017

How London became a hotspot for art theft - the world’s third most profitable criminal enterprise

It’s pouring with rain when I go to meet Charley Hill in the café at The National Gallery, and the sky is so moody one might be tempted to call it ‘Rothko grey’.
He is waiting for me with a white paper envelope and a golf umbrella, and has greying curly hair, kind crinkly eyes and round tortoiseshell glasses. In contrast to Hill’s usual meetings with gangland informers and kingpins of the criminal underworld, all that’s in my envelope are three postcards he’s bought for me from the Sir John Soane’s Museum where, 30 years ago, he foiled an armed attempt to steal two Hogarth paintings. Once DCI of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit, Hill has worked as a private detective since 1997 and has contributed to some of the biggest art crime recoveries in history.
‘I don’t break the law but I do deal with people you wouldn’t want to talk to,’ he tells me in his soft, mid-Atlantic accent. ‘Using informants is the only way to get these things back.’
The ‘things’ he refers to have included Goya’s Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate, which he discovered rolled up in a sports bag, Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, retrieved from a multistorey car park in Antwerp, and Titian’s £5m Rest on the Flight into Egypt, stuffed into a red and blue striped laundry bag and found at a bus stop outside Richmond station. One of the best stories he tells me — over two pre-lunch Screwdrivers — involves accidentally bumping Munch’s The Scream on the headrest of his associate’s Mercedes sports coupé, having gone undercover at an Oslo hotel to retrieve the masterpiece. ‘It’s just on a piece of cardboard so it’s like carrying a big packing box,’ he says of rescuing one of the most famous paintings in the world, valued at the time at £35m.

Art work: private detective Charley Hill
Whether it’s an elaborate forgery of a Damien Hirst Spin painting, a Banksy swiped from an Islington flat by Airbnb-ers, or ISIS’s looting of historical antiquities in Palmyra, art crime is happening every day. It is now ranked the third highest grossing criminal enterprise, behind drugs and arms dealing respectively. In 2013, figures suggested that thefts of art and antiques in the UK alone totalled more than £300m. ‘London is an ideal site for moving art because of its position as a centre of the art world and global art market,’ explains Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.
‘The British Art Market Federation reported that there were 48,500 people directly employed in the art and antiques market, and the UK has a 21 per cent share of the $56bn global art market, which gives you an idea of London’s muscle.’
Yet in August Scotland Yard announced that it had seconded the three remaining detectives from its specialist unit to the Grenfell Tower investigation, and there are fears that its Art and Antiques Unit might well be closed indefinitely. ‘The loss would be felt across the globe,’ says Vernon Rapley, who was in charge of the unit for 10 years before becoming head of security at the V&A in 2010. ‘We dealt with everything, from ancient Assyrian reliefs to contemporary painting to vintage wine — all sorts of things came through that office door. It takes a long time to understand these crimes, so having a small, specialist team frees up other officers’ time when these cases do come in.’ The Metropolitan Police did not respond to our queries about the future of the unit, but with police funding tighter than ever there’s a sense that picture-napping isn’t the most pressing concern.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (Alamy Stock Photo)
‘I’m sympathetic to the view that knife crime is more important than art crime,’ says Saskia Hufnagel, a senior lecturer in criminal law at Queen Mary, University of London, who writes about art theft and forgery. ‘But when we think about how stolen art could be used as a currency to fund arms, drugs and terrorism, we’re talking about more than just losing cultural property.’
Although it’s the Thomas Crowne-style museum heists that make the headlines, art crime has now gone digital. This summer hackers stole sums ranging from £10,000 to £1m from nine galleries and individuals, including the Mayfair-based Hauser & Wirth gallery when they used an email scam to intercept payments between galleries and collectors. The notoriously unregulated art market, combined with large sums of money changing hands, make this type of con particularly lucrative. ‘You can’t buy a $1m condo without three weeks of paperwork and 100 checks and balances, but art dealers and their clients will wire $1m after a single conversation,’ says one US dealer who asked not to be named.
Then there are the inside jobs and questions of provenance. ‘A lot of theft from museums will be an item taken from the archives which isn’t detected for years and is never reported,’ says Hufnagel. For the V&A’s Vernon Rapley the most pressing concerns are ‘fakes and forgeries — not just those objects directly penetrating the collections, but also the attributions or provenance of those objects. Sometimes the things coming in to our collection are more dangerous than the things going out. There was a point in the past when people were borrowing a tray of coins for “study purposes”, taking the most valuable ones out and replacing them with forgeries.’

Christopher Marinello
From a nondescript office in Hatton Garden with a few watercolours on the wall, Julian Radcliffe runs The Art Loss Register, a global database of stolen art and antiques which has recovered over £100m worth of paintings, statues and sculptures since 1991. According to The Register (as it’s known in the trade), there are more than 500,000 stolen, fake or looted items floating around, including more than 1,000 Picassos — the most stolen artist. Clearly, criminals love a bit of fractured perspective.
Radcliffe is a former risk consultant for Lloyd’s of London, who once specialised in kidnap negotiations, a skill that presumably comes in handy now he spends his days trying to talk back Old Masters. ‘We often get calls from individuals who say they know where an item is and that they want money for [that knowledge],’ he says. ‘We fill in the gaps between the police, the governments and the art industry.’ The company charges people £10 to register their lost or stolen item on the database and takes a percentage of an item’s ‘ultimate net benefit’ if it’s recovered. It had a turnover of £1m last year. In 1999, Radcliffe made $2million for reuniting a stolen Cézanne painting, Pitcher and Fruit, with its owner. (There are more successes but not for such large sums of money. For example, he recently made £100,000 after recovering some pictures that were part of an insurance fraud.)
The sometimes murky distinction between paying rewards to informants, as opposed to ransom money to thieves which is illegal, means that the work of the private art detective can be controversial. In 2000, the Tate reportedly paid £3.5m to lawyers on behalf of informants with strong connections to the Serbian underworld, to retrieve two stolen Turners worth £20m. ‘There are a lot of disreputable companies operating in this grey area,’ says Christopher Marinello, who set up the non-profit register ARTIVE.org and the art recovery organisation Art Recovery International and has been dubbed the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Nazi-looted art’. ‘Paying criminals for information encourages art crime, and withholding information from victims or museums unless you get paid isn’t ethical.’ Marinello says he does a lot of pro-bono work, particularly for churches, museums and artists who can’t afford his fees. ‘I’m a sucker for religious artefacts,’ he says. ‘I recently recovered a Masonic sword which had been stolen and sold at a car-boot sale and ended up at an auction house in London. The auction house had done no due diligence whatsoever — if they’d even googled it they would’ve seen that it had been stolen.’

Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Alamy Stock Photo)
The idea of masterpieces being stolen to order for a criminal mastermind, such as the James Bond villain Dr No with his misappropriated Goya, is nearly always Hollywood fantasy. ‘It’s almost never stolen because it’s a beautiful object,’ says Vernon Rapley. ‘Rather, it’s a commodity that can be used as collateral for other illicit activity.’ He adds that to understand art crime you need to look at the bigger picture (pun, presumably, not intended). ‘There are trends — a few years ago Chinese gangs were stealing Chinese antiquities to use as currency,’ he says. ‘Similarly, when drugs were being bought from Turkey there would be peaks in the theft of art that would appeal to that market. At the moment we’re quite concerned about our collections which feature rhino horn — they might not be the most valuable items but they’re high risk because they are desirable [in Asia].’
Technology may have led to cybercrime and more sophisticated forgeries, but it is also being turned on the criminals. ‘There are new inventions being tried such as genetic fingerprinting for paintings, analysing cryptocurrencies and blockchain software to track provenance,’ says Lynda Albertson. ‘Recently, a team of undercover operatives and Syrian archaeologists applied a tracing liquid to antiquities which uses nanotechnology to encrypt data into water.’ A solution of small particles suspended in water is painted on to objects to track where they’ve come from; it can’t be removed and it’s only visible under UV light.
For the most part, art crime cases are solved the old-fashioned way, and occasionally, quickly. Marinello recalls posing as a buyer for a job that took 15 days in total, from the time of the theft to the day the photograph — worth about £350,000 — was back on the wall of the museum it came from in Prague. ‘The stars aligned for that one,’ he admits. More often, though, unravelling the threads requires huge patience and skill. Julian Radcliffe recovered the Hooke manuscripts, original minutes of meetings at The Royal Society between 1677 and 1682, as recorded by scientist Robert Hooke, which were stolen 300 years ago. Charley Hill has been on the trail of the Mafia-inspired theft of a Caravaggio for 30 years. Will he ever give up? ‘Never — I’ll be doing this until I drop.’

'The right thing to do is return them'

Almost eight months after two Gottfried Lindauer paintings were stolen from a Parnell art centre, the centre's director has once again made a plea for their return.
Together, the paintings, depicting Chieftainess Ngatai-Raure and Chief Ngatai-Raure, are believed to be worth about $1 million.
"The right thing to do is return them," says International Art Centre director Richard Thomson. "It would be nice to see, the nation wants them returned."
Mr Thomson is speaking out, after an anonymous seller recently posted a listing on the 'dark web', selling what they claim is one of the stolen Lindauer works.
The dark web is an untraceable part of the internet and special software is needed to access it.
But Mr Thomson believes what's been advertised on the listing is fake.
"I can tell by some of the photographs on it and the photoshopping," he says. "We know those paintings more than anyone.
"Yes, it's the painting, but it's a copy of it - it's a printed copy."
Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is taking the listing seriously and has asked officials for advice.
"I've referred queries to the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage, because I'm sure that there would be some way that they choose to respond to these kinds of issues - a policy on the way that they respond to stolen goods," she says.
"So I've left that for their advice. It seems pretty bold for someone to list a stolen item and actually state that it's a stolen item the way they have."
Art historian Penelope Jackson, the author of Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story, says whether the listing is authentic or not, it's brought the story back into the spotlight.
"Perhaps it might jog someone's memory about something they've seen or a conversation they've overheard that could ultimately provide the police with the information they need to find the culprits and the works," says Ms Jackson.
Mr Thomson says he's confident the paintings are still in New Zealand.

Mystery of the Admiral’s jewel: Remarkable story of Lord Nelson’s prized 300-diamond hat piece gifted to him after the Battle of the Nile that vanished from a museum 66 years ago

  • Nelson was gifted the stunning seven-inch chelengk by Sultan Selim III of Turkey
  • Hat decoration was sold in 1895 for £710 to ease the family's financial difficulties
  • It would end up in London's National Maritime Musuem until it was stolen in 1951
  • Career criminal sold the prized jewel to a gang who broke it into smaller pieces
The remarkable story of Admiral Lord Nelson's most precious jewel which vanished from a museum 66 years ago has been revealed in a new book.
Nelson was gifted the stunning seven-inch chelengk by Sultan Selim III of Turkey after the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
The hat decoration contained over 300 diamonds and a central diamond Ottoman star which was powered by clockwork to rotate and sparkle in candlelight.
Nelson was the first non-Muslim recipient of the chelengk and wore it on his hat like a turban jewel, sparking a fashion craze for similar jewels in England.
Nelson was gifted the stunning seven-inch chelengk by Sultan Selim III of Turkey after the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
A replica of the jewel
Lord Nelson (left) was gifted the stunning seven-inch chelengk (replica shown right) by Sultan Selim III of Turkey after the Battle of the Nile in 1798
London jeweller Philip Denyer has used 350 18th century diamonds to make an exact replica of the chelengk to coincede with the book launch of Nelson's Lost Chelengk
London jeweller Philip Denyer has used 350 18th century diamonds to make an exact replica of the chelengk to coincede with the book launch of Nelson's Lost Chelengk
It remained in his family for generations before it was sold in 1895 for £710 to ease the family's financial difficulties.
The chelengk was then bought for £1,500 by the Society for Nautical Research in 1929 following a national appeal and placed in London's National Maritime Museum.
But it was stolen in 1951 by career criminal George Chatham, who sold the jewel for a 'few thousand' to a criminal gang who he believes broke it up into little pieces.
The fascinating history of the jewel has been researched by historian and jewel expert Martyn Downer for his new book Nelson's Lost Chelengk.
To coincide with the book launch, London jeweller Philip Denyer has used 350 18th century diamonds to make an exact replica of the chelengk.
The jewel, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, is on display in the Victory Gallery at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard alongside a black felt cocked hat.
The jewel was stolen from the National Maritime Musuem in 1951 by career criminal George Chatham, who sold the jewel for a 'few thousand' to a criminal gang
The jewel was stolen from the National Maritime Musuem in 1951 by career criminal George Chatham, who sold the jewel for a 'few thousand' to a criminal gang
A close-up of the replica
The goldsmith copied a newly discovered drawing of the chelengk which had been hidden away in the library at the College of Arms in London
For the replica (left), a goldsmith copied a newly discovered drawing (right) of the chelengk which had been hidden away in the library at the College of Arms in London
The goldsmith copied a newly discovered drawing of the chelengk which had been hidden away in the library at the College of Arms in London.
The drawing was commissioned by Nelson's niece Charlotte who inherited the chelengk after his death.
She asked Thomas King, a Norfolk-born officer at the College of Arms, to paint it alongside Nelson's other orders and decorations for a planned history of Great Yarmouth.
His watercolour is the most accurate record of the chelengk as it appeared during Nelson's lifetime, showing in unprecedented detail the delicate white enamelling on the petals of the flowers and a single ruby radiating from the jewel.
By the time the chelengk passed into the hands of the National Maritime Museum in 1929, its enamelled flowering and clockwork mechanism had been removed.
Martyn Downer, 51, said: 'Nelson knew it was an extraordinary jewel and asked for permission from the king to wear it on his hat as part of his official uniform.
'I visited the College of Arms last year and by pure serendipity King's fabulous drawing of the chelengk was unearthed in an album in the library.

'Forget Trafalgar... the Battle of the Nile was Nelson's finest hour'

The Battle of the Nile was one of the most significant clashes between Nelson (pictured) and his counterpart Napoleon
The Battle of the Nile was one of the most significant clashes between Nelson (pictured) and his counterpart Napoleon
Many historians agree that the Battle of the Nile was more significant than Trafalgar, the battle in which Nelson died. It was during this conflict that Généreux was nearly taken by the Lord Admiral's men but the ship managed to escaped - only to be captured two years later.
In August 1798, the French were at anchor in Aboukir Bay in shallow water, using the shore to protect the south-western side of the fleet, while the north-eastern faced open sea.
Although the ships were chained together, Nelson believed the chain between the last ship in the line and the shore was sunk deep enough to let a vessel pass.
In a daring night-time manoeuvre, his fleet slipped through the gap and attacked the French on their unprotected side.
The battle established Britain as the dominant sea power during the French revolutionary wars and was immortalised in the poem Casablanca, known for its opening line 'The boy stood on the burning deck'.
Nelson's flagship during the battle was the Vanguard. Other British ships commemorated by surviving copses include the Minotaur, Defence, Swiftsure, Theseus, Orion, Bellerophon and Alexander.
Stephen Fisher of the National Trust said: 'The Battle of the Nile in 1798 was one of Nelson's most significant clashes with Napoleon.
'Forget Trafalgar, this was Nelson's finest hour and at the time was his most famous victory.'
Divers pull out a 200-year-old canon (pictured) from the ship wreck of the Orient, the French fleet's flagship during the Battle of the Nile, in 1999
Divers pull out a 200-year-old canon (pictured) from the ship wreck of the Orient, the French fleet's flagship during the Battle of the Nile, in 1999'The level of detail in the drawing has enabled the jeweller to make an exact replica of the chelengk using 350 18th century diamonds which have been salvaged from jewels of that era.
'The enamelling has been done in the same colour and every detail I've researched has been included in the jewel.
'It is an extraordinary object which is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.'
During the heist, Chatham smashed the plate glass of the display case containing the Nelson relics and left a crowbar in the shards of broken glass.
Only the chelengk, the most precious object in the display, was missing.
Nothing else had been touched and the jewel's fitted case had been left behind.
Two ladders were discovered in an annex next to the gallery which had been used by Chatham to reach a window which he forced open.
A watch was immediately placed at ports and airports as there was speculation the chelengk had been stolen by an antiques gang to flog on the Continent or in America.
The replica jewel, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, is on display in the Victory Gallery at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard alongside a black felt cocked hat
The replica jewel, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, is on display in the Victory Gallery at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard alongside a black felt cocked hat
The jeweller used 350 diamonds (pictured when removed from the ornament) to recreate the famous gem
The jeweller used 350 diamonds (pictured when removed from the ornament) to recreate the famous gem
Within hours, a reward of £250 was offered for information leading to the recovery of the jewel, but no one was arrested for the theft.
However, in 1994 Chatham confessed to the crime during a TV interview.
He said he sold the chelengk for a 'few thousand' before the jewel was broken up into little pieces.
Chatham had previous as in 1948 he stole two glittering diamond-encrusted swords in an exhibition of Wellington relics at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, west London.
Mr Dormer, 51, of Cambridge, said: 'It seems remarkable now that a burglar who preyed on Mayfair's mansions was able to take it with such apparent ease.
'It certainly caused an enormous stink that such a special object had been left unguarded.
'Chatham appeared on TV and admitted he stole it and sold it for a 'few thousand'.'
  • Nelson's Lost Jewel: The Extraordinary Story of the Lost Diamond Chelengk, by Martyn Downer, is published by The History Press and coasts £20.

Prized ornament gifted to Nelson by Sultan Selim III discovered by police divers and sold for £70,000

An ornate scabbard chape belonging to Admiral Lord Nelson - discovered on the bed of the River Thames by a police diver in the 1970s - was sold at auction for £70,000 in 2015.
It is believed the six-inch long enamel and diamond decoration that fixed onto the bottom end of the naval hero's sword case was tossed into the water by thieves decades before.
It was discovered in 1973 purely by chance by a police diver searching for a weapon used in a crime.
This ornate scabbard chape belonging to  Lord Nelson - discovered on the bed of the River Thames by a police diver in the 1970s - was sold at auction for £70,000 in 2015
This ornate scabbard chape belonging to Lord Nelson - discovered on the bed of the River Thames by a police diver in the 1970s - was sold at auction for £70,000 in 2015
The chape, like the seven-inch chelengk, was presented to Nelson by the Sultan Selim III of the Turkish Empire to commemorate the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
It is decorated in diamonds with the star and crescent which matches the Ottoman Order of the Crescent granted to Nelson in 1799.
Five years before its discovery, an ornate locket with an identical decoration that was used on the top part of Nelson's scabbard was found during dredging work of the River Wey in Surrey.
The location was not far from the Thames at Windsor where the chape was found, nor from Nelson's palatial home at Merton.
The chape was presented to Nelson to commemorate the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 (pictured in a painting)
The chape was presented to Nelson to commemorate the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 (pictured in a painting)

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