Friday, July 22, 2011

When is a ransom not a ransom? Why, when it's "a fee for information leading to recovery", of course!

One senses that National Portrait Gallery director and former Tate employee Sandy Nairne might have been wiser to leave the case of the stolen Turner paintings alone instead of writing a book about it. The two pictures (left), stolen from the Kunsthalle Schirn in 1994, were eventually recovered in a shady deal engineered by the Tate with a little help from its friends on both sides of the ethical divide.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak wasn't the only one casting a jaundiced eye over the Tate's deft recovery of the paintings in 2002 when they clipped the ticket on the insurance side and then paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters for recovery of the paintings. Oh, sorry, did I just say "paid a ransom"? I meant to say, "paid a fee for information leading to the recovery of the paintings."

But this is semantics. Everyone knows that a ransom was paid. It's just that neither Sandy Nairne, nor Nicholas Serota, or anyone else involved in the case, could possibly step up and admit that. It would be tantamount to encouraging further art thefts. And yet that's the exact outcome of the whole affair. Gangsters from Oldham to Odessa will have looked at that deal and thought "Yes, art theft DOES pay after all."

To pretend otherwise is not just disingenuous, it's downright stupid. He may have been vilified for it, but at least Henri Nannen had the guts to admit that he'd paid a ransom in 1962 to recover the stolen Riemenschneider Madonna.

Meanwhile, art crime publishing is the gift that keeps on giving, with everyone from former FBI cops to museum directors cashing in on the enduring public fascination with the genre by writing their "memoirs". And yet it's instructive that very few art cops (with the exception, it seems, of Messrs Ellis and Hill) have ever succeeded in recovering any of these really high-profile stolen pictures, while it seems that of those pictures that HAVE been recovered, more than a few (whisper it) were recovered through clandestine payments to the criminals or their representatives.

The brilliant BBC2 investigative documentary about the recovery of the Tate's Turners left some of us in no doubt that the Tate had paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters. Sorry, did I just say "ransom to Balkan gangsters"? What I meant to say was: "fees for information openly paid to shady international lawyers who then passed it to the Balkan gangsters."

Pull the other one; it's got bells on.

1 comment:

Chip Kabwe said...

daring text Tom, and 100% correct!