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Recovery of stolen Turners

British and German governments backed a 3.1 million Pound Stirling payout to secure safe return of oil painting masterpieces.

London’s Tate Galery went to remarkable lengths to gain the support of the government and the courts before paying out 3.1 million pounds to help recover two stolen J. M. W. Turner masterpiece oil paintings, it has been revealed.

The new details come in a dossier of documents, dated April 2000 and recently released, which relate the moves taken by Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota to regain the oil paintings. The documents show that the Metropolitan police and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport were both involved in the planning.

More redolent of a thriller plot than the normally sedate world of art museums, the process of finding the oil paintings involved secret bank accounts, code words, stashes of cash in briefcases and a German Dean Martin impersonator in whose garage one of the oil paintings was hidden.

The oil paintings had been stolen in July 1994 from a Frankfurt gallery, where they were on loan. In October 1999 a German lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, who is said to have had clients in the Balkan mafia, contacted the Tate. His letter said: "I am in direct contact with the people who are now in possession of the oil paintings. These people are very suspicious; they are afraid that the return operation might also be used to convict them. They are therefore expecting an advance payment in order to establish a basis of trust."

Mr Liebrucks requested a down payment of 310,000 pounds and said the price in full for the oil paintings would be 3.1 million pounds.

The Tate paid the money, drawing it from the 24 million pound insurance payouts for the oil paintings. The gallery had bought back from the insurers, for 8 million pounds, the ownership of the art works in the case of their discovery.

Mr Liebruck's intervention led to the swift recovery of one oil painting later that year. Its discovery was kept secret until, after a series of setbacks and breakdowns in negotiations, the second oil painting was recovered in 2002.

The oil paintings, Shade and Darkness, and The Morning After the Deluge, are great works from late in J. M. W. Turner's career.

Sir Nicholas, in his affidavit, asked that the "court does everything in its power to restrict knowledge of this application until the oil paintings have been recovered" in order not to jeopardise the operation. It is only now, three years after both oil paintings were reunited on the walls of Tate Britain, that the confidentiality provision in the court order has been lifted.

What the dossier makes clear is that in the judgment of Sir Francis Ferris, the high court judge, the payments were legal and in the public interest. That view was supported by the government and German authorities.
What remains controversial is the question of what became of the 3.1m pounds. The art gallery, at the time, strenuously denied that the money had been used for ransom. Instead Sir Nicholas said it was used to obtain "information". When the recovery of both oil paintings was announced three years ago he said: "I don't think we have paid the thieves in any sense."

Asked to define ransom, Sandy Nairne, now director of the National Portrait Gallery but formerly in charge of the recovery operation, said: "If I stole something from you and said I will burn it unless you pay me money then that is a ransom demand. For the J. M. W. Turners it was an arrangement approved by the German and British authorities." The defining characteristic of a ransom, he said, was the element of threat - absent in this case.

Asked whether he had any qualms about the eventual destination of the money, initially deposited in a Frankfurt bank in an account belonging to Mr Liebrucks, he said: "No money was handed to anyone other than the German lawyer. No one knows what happened afterwards. Anything else is utter surmise. It could have gone to his grandmother for all I know.

"What was weighed up by Judge Ferris was that the greater public benefit was in the payments being made... I spent many years of my life getting these oil paintings back. It's thrilling that we are now able to make clear that the authority was there to make these payments."

However, according to a documentary shown on BBC2 recently, the second oil painting ended up in the Frankfurt garage of a mechanic, bar owner and Dean Martin impersonator, Josef Stohl. When his financial problems became unbearable, it is claimed he and a friend decided to sell the oil painting he had been keeping in his garage for his mafia contacts. They contacted Mr Liebrucks, who eventually packed €2.5m into a bag and handed over the cash at a rendezvous. Stohl and his associate then, according to the documentary, fled to Brazil via Cuba. Mr Nairne said this part of the story was "news to me" and he had not known of it before the documentary was broadcast.

No details were given by the documentary of what happened to the money paid for the first oil painting. The two thieves and a handler were convicted of the initial theft, but the crime is thought to have been committed at the behest of a member of the Balkan mafia in Frankfurt.

An interesting twist to the tale is that the Tate actually made money from the theft. The insurance payout was 24 million pounds. Even after the title of the paintings was bought back for 8 million pounds and the works recovered for a total 3.5 million pounds a large amount, accumulating interest, was left.
In 1999, 7 million pounds of it was used to purchase the freehold of Tate's art store in Southwark, London.
In 1994 two J. M. W. Turner oil painting masterpieces from the Tate's collection - Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour (1843) - were loaned to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. On the night of July 28 they were stolen, along with a Caspar David Friedrich oil painting from a Hamburg gallery. The thieves waited for the interval between the security men leaving the art gallery and the alarm being set before binding and gagging the nightwatchmen and making away with the oil paintings.
A year later two robbers and their driver were arrested; and convicted in 1999. The insurers paid out in full - 24 million pounds. But in 1998 the Tate bought back the insurers' title for 8 million pounds and took over the recovery operation.
In summer 1999, the Metropolitan police made contact with Edgar Liebrucks, a lawyer who said he could help recover the oil paintings. The recovery of one art work followed in 2000; the second three years ago. The cost of recovery was 3.1 million pounds in payments to Liebrucks; the total including expenses was 3.5 million pounds.





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