Book Review: Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners

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Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners
Sandy Nairne (Reaktion Books, £20, *£17)

On December 20, 2000, the Tate Gallery issued a press release: two of Turner’s most famous paintings, Shade and Darkness-The Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) The Morning after the Deluge, stolen on July 28, 1994, when on loan to a Frankfurt museum, had been recovered. It marked the conclusion of more than eight years of fraught negotiations, which saw Sandy Nairne, then director of programmes at the Tate, emerge from the rarefied world of academe into the murky underworld of European crime, as curator turned art sleuth.

Mr Nairne gives a gripping account of the complex and delicate negotiations for the recovery of the Turners. Acting throughout ‘under authority from the Charity Commission, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and a court order issued in April 2000′, as well as the blessing of Tate Trustees, loss adjustors, German authorities and the Met, he embarks on numerous trips to Frankfurt with veteran art detective ‘Rocky’ Rokoszynski and meets with the mysterious lawyer Edgar Liebrucks, acting as middleman with those in possession of the paintings (the thieves themselves are already in jail). Widely held to be Balkan gangsters-whom Mr Nairne distances as ‘the other side’-they want the deutschemark equivalent of approximately £3.1 million. It is a fraction of the paintings’ £24 million value, which was paid out by Hiscox insurance.

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The whole operation cost the Tate £3.5 million and, after a clever deal brokered by Geoffrey Robinson in 1999, by which the gallery bought back the title to the paintings from the insurers for just £8 million, left the Tate with a healthy surplus.

The second half of the book consists of analysis of the more general questions surrounding art theft-most notably, the issue of ethics and the all-important difference between reward (which is legal) and ransom (which is not). Mr Nairne argues that the Tate’s payment was neither a ransom nor a ‘buy-back’-which would only encourage further theft-but a reward paid to Mr Lie-brucks for his role in the safe recovery of national treasures. The Tate, he stresses, had no direct dealings with the criminals, nor were they granted immunity. A discreet veil is drawn across the ultimate reci-pients of the £3.1 million, and any subsequent action by German police.

It may be a grey area, riddled with semantic niceties, but there is little doubt that Mr Nairne was motivated by the public interest. The paintings are back at the Tate, giving millions pleasure. Put more bluntly, in the words of Mr Rokoszynski: ‘We had the highest judge in the country telling us that it was legal… Call the money whatever you like.’

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