Monday, March 2, 2009

Ransoms revisited

Mark Durney over at Art Theft Central has just posted a helpful piece about art theft ransoms here.

It reminded me of a news item I logged a few years ago from the New Zealand website, (link sadly no longer operative), which reported police concern that, "people are dealing with criminals themselves in order to recover stolen property," after a Christchurch car-yard operator paid a NZ$5000 'ransom' to secure the return of a stolen rally car. Evidently the following year (2006, I think) a stolen sculpture was also the subject of a NZ$10,000 ransom payment, although police didn't hear about it until the operation had been completed.

Interestingly, this latter case was allegedly "facilitated" by the editor of a New Zealand newspaper — the Kapiti Coast Observer.

These reports happened to come hot on the heels of the allegations that the Tate had paid a ransom to "buy back" the two J.M.W. Turner paintings — Shade and Darkness: The Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour: The Morning after the Deluge — stolen while on loan to Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle in 1994, about which Mark writes.

At the time, Tate director Sir Nick Serota and former head of operations Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), both denied that the £3.1 million was paid as a ransom. But the allegation made in the BBC2 documentary 'Undercover Art Theft' — that the money was paid to intermediaries acting on behalf of the Balkan mafioso who was holding the pictures — proved difficult to refute (although equally difficult to prove).

At the end of the documentary German reporters declared their determination to continue digging. But if you were Nick Serota or Lord Myners (then chairman of the Tate), wouldn't you have stipulated that the one sacred condition of any payment be that the paper trail be untraceable afterwards? 

As Mark points out in his blog item, the payment of ransoms to secure stolen art is not new, and neither is the involvement of the media in that process. One occasion occurred in the 1960s when the German illustrated news magazine Stern acted as go-between in negotiations over the recovery of a Tilman Rimenschneider sculpture of the Madonna which had been stolen from a mountain village church in Southern Germany. 

Stern's editor, the respected journalist Henri Nannen, engineered a ransom payment to the thieves, using his journal as the intermediary. It worked and the sculpture was recovered (Nannen is shown above left with the sculpture), although the police and local magistrates were hopping mad about it. (See Hugh McLeave, Rogues in the Gallery, Boston, 1981, pp96-108). Indeed history seems to have indicated that Nannen's intervention led to a spate of further church thefts in the region, seemingly undertaken by opportunist thieves encouraged by the possibility of a ransom (supporting the 'boost' theory to which Mark refers).

Then a few years ago, we heard that art crime experts were expecting the perpetrators of the Henry Moore sculpture theft to stick their heads above the parapet by demanding the reward of £100,000 reportedly offered by the Henry Moore Foundation. It now seems more likely that the Moore (and indeed a Lynn Chadwick work stolen around the same time) may have been melted down.

The Tate commented that the most important objective in the Turner negotiations was the recovery of the works of art. What about ethics? The fact that by paying a recovery fee the Tate might have sent out the wrong message to other criminals seems to have been ignored, along with the fact that art theft often involves violence.

"The investigation [into the Tate's Turners] was never completed," a spokesperson for Frankfurt magistrates told the American art magazine Art News around the time the BBC2 documentary was broadcast.

They might not have delivered on that, but renewed scrutiny from Michael Daley of pressure group Art Watch suggests this one hasn't yet run its course. Daley believes Lord Myners was being "either incredulous or disingenuous" when he said in a letter in 2005 that no ransom had been paid. (Telegraph link here).

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