Paying For Information On Stolen Art: When Is a Reward Not a Reward?
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.