Books: Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners

Timothy Mason, Issue 111/09, p56-57, 01.09.2011
There's plenty of cloak-and-dagger stuff in this book about an audacious theft, but it’s a whodunit with few answers, thinks Timothy Mason
By Sandy Nairne, Reaktion Books, £20, ISBN 978 1 86189 851 7

On 28 July 1994, three paintings were stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt where they had been on loan for an exhibition, Goethe and the Visual Arts.

One was Caspar David Friedrich’s Nebelschwaden; the other two were Turners from the Tate, Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour. This is the story of the Tate’s eight-and-a-half year pursuit of its missing paintings.

From the beginning, this was a controversial theft, veiled in mystery, rumour, charge and countercharge. No sooner had the first pre-publication copies of Sandy Nairne’s Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners made an appearance, journalists, critics, bloggers and self-appointed watchdogs began a word by word analysis of Nairne’s text.

They were looking not for clues as to the whereabouts of the stolen Turners – they had long since come home – but a greater understanding of how their return was secured: had the Tate paid a ransom? Who were the thieves? Were they rewarded and if so, how? Was there a Serbian connection? Why were no charges made?

Immediately after the loss of the paintings was reported to the Tate, Sandy Nairne, then its director of programmes, was appointed leader of a small team charged with the task of trying to retrieve the stolen works.

Correction – Nairne was the small team, supplemented from time to time by members of Tate staff including conservator Roy Perry, who emerges as the Q of the tale. Nick Serota remains very much a background figure – a voice on the telephone, reminiscent of Mission Impossible.

Nairne is a much-respected visual arts administrator, caught up in the murky world of art theft, fraud and shady deals. There are all the classic scenes of a John Le Carré plot – a hotel called Arabella, the early morning flights, the eastbound platform of Westbourne Park tube station, the Millennium Dome, the interrupted family life, the punting regatta, a paddle steamer on the Rhine.

And undercover policemen, one known as Peter who masquerades for a short time as Andrew Wilton, the Tate’s senior Turner expert, and another, Jurek Rokoszynski, known inevitably as Rocky, who rapidly emerges as one of the central figures in this tangled tale, when he is not holidaying in Galapagos or sailing across the Tasman.

There is a lateral-thinking government minister and the art-loving insurance broker, Robert Hiscox. There’s even a role for Helen Mirren, then-DI Jill McTigue of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques Squad. The characters come so thick and fast that I often had to check back to remind myself just who was who.

Because it is Nairne’s story, it is told very much from his perspective. It is a frank and revealing book but it is also a restrained one. Nairne is loyal to his former employers and he knows where the eggshells are and where to tiptoe with care.
To be fair, the book is peppered with extracts from interviews conducted with many of the leading protagonists, but these tend only to embellish the view from the Tate.

There is no interview with the enigmatic German lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, who acted as a Tate-paid go-between, bringing messages from those holding the missing paintings and negotiating their return. And we emerge no wiser about who were those thieves, rumoured to be Balkan criminals.

Looking positively at the outcome of this complex story, both Turners are back at Tate Britain and the Friedrich has returned to Kunsthalle Hamburg. Art Theft never quite gets to the bottom of the controversies that have lingered around what is ultimately a success story –not least what was the exact use of the £3.5m which the Tate spent in retrieving the two paintings?

The funds were part of the insurance deal that the paymaster general secured for the Tate. The attempts to explain where the money went and whether it rewarded criminals range from the bland to the blind eye.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that old cup-and-ball routine that used to be played on boxes in Oxford Street – now you see it, now you don’t.

Timothy Mason is a museum consultant