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Post  eddie Fri Jul 22, 2011 8:55 pm

Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners by Sandy Nairne – review

Former Tate employee Sandy Nairne's account of his search for two stolen Turner paintings is an incredible tale of fraud and dodgy underworld characters

Laura Cumming The Observer, Sunday 17 July 2011

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Handlers from the Tate hang one of the two stolen Turner paintings in 2003. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

In 1994, two paintings by Turner were stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt while on loan from the Tate in London. Ecstatic visions of light and burning darkness, they were valued at £24m. There were the usual rumours of Balkan gangsters stealing them for collateral or for some zillionaire client who wished to gaze upon them for the rest of his days. They were lost – or so it seemed – for eight years.

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Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners by Sandy Nairne

In that time, nobody at the Tate worked harder to recover them than Sandy Nairne, then its director of programmes, now well-respected director of the National Portrait Gallery. A stupefying amount of Nairne's life, as his riveting book reveals, was devoted to nerve-racking negotiations with mysterious middlemen, sudden and futile expeditions to Germany, tense meetings with loss adjusters, Tate trustees and detectives.

He is woken by midnight calls, embroiled in Ealing comedy escapades with fraudsters, entangled in operations so complex he has to draw diagrams to keep track of everyone involved, from the petty thieves who won't name their bosses to the flamboyant German lawyer Edgar Liebrucks, who eventually secures the handover to Geoffrey Robinson, the paymaster general, who contributes a big twist to the plot.

When his colleagues tease him for "wandering in the woods again" after another fruitless trip, one wonders whether anyone else was ever quite as eager to find the Lost Turners (two of 3,000 owned by the Tate). But Nairne, who deeply disapproves of the romantic narrative of art theft, with its Thomas Crowns and reclusive collectors lusting over their stolen Vermeers, is driven by a moral compunction to put publicly owned art back before the public.

The book wants to be – has every claim to be – a meticulously historical account, seamed through with serious ethical considerations. Yet it is split. The second half is a scholarly survey of theft, markets and value that appears deliberately designed to dampen the excitement of the first but does nothing to diminish the mounting drama in which Nairne can't help becoming his own protagonist.

He becomes dejected, nearly misses job interviews (Tate Modern opens, a directorship he doesn't get), frets about detectives chasing paintings instead of terrorists. His daughter complains that he is not sympathetic about her sore throat at a most precarious moment in the operation. When "Rocky" Rokoszynski, the charismatic investigator, calls with crucial instructions, Nairne is taking part in a sports event with his son. He feels terribly torn about both.

Hopes soar – a Polaroid of the stolen art arrives: "I wanted to shout out that the paintings were alive!" – and recurrently fade. The Metropolitan Police (page 69, for anyone collecting further instances of Met incompetence) almost derails the operation. Eventually, the first painting is recovered, though the Tate puts out a press release denying that fact when the Daily Mail publishes rumours that the Serbian warlord Arkan is involved. It is another two years before the second comes home.

Meanwhile, in the intervening years, Robinson comes up with a cunning scheme. The Kunsthalle was insured; the Tate had received £24m; why not buy the titles back from the insurers for less (£8m in fact)? If the pictures ever turned up, the Tate might have them back and make an extra £16m into the bargain.

Which is precisely what happened, though Nairne is too honourable to gloat. Instead, he records every meeting with the Charity Commission, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the high court to ratify the legality of using that money to pay for the Tate's new warehouse, as opposed to Tate Modern itself. Robinson is reproved for confusing the two buildings in his memoirs.

But warehouse, museum: who cares? Nairne is too concerned with this issue. Nobody reading Art Theft could fail to wonder about something far more important: namely, what kind of transaction was involved in getting the art back?

In all those trips to Frankfurt, the author barely gets an overnight stay. His parsimony is civic-minded. The expenses for recovering the pictures stood at £3.5m in the end and he's absolutely scrupulous about public money.

But he is too scrupulous, alas, to mention Stevo V, the Balkan mafioso rumoured to have masterminded the theft. Or the fact that Liebrucks was Stevo's lawyer, which might explain how he helped find the Turners. Indeed, you will read nothing here about why they were stolen, where they were kept or by whom (Josef Stohl, the Dean Martin impersonator said to have looked after them, is a piquant omission). These are the romantic speculations that give people what Nairne disparagingly calls "a buzz".

Art theft is commonly described as a victimless crime: nobody hurt. Presumably, the insurers who lost so heavily by selling the titles would not agree, though underwriting is betting by other means. The recovery of both the pictures and the insurance money was, by comparison, a smart gamble for the Tate.

But was it ransom, pay-off or buy-back? Nairne is insistent that it was nothing more than a reward for information; certainly, the Tate had no direct contact with the criminals. But someone other than Liebrucks and the redoubtable detectives "Rocky" Rokoszynski and Mick Lawrence received some of those millions and lo, the pictures were returned. The greater mystery of Art Theft is not who stole the Turners, but what exactly became of the Tate's money.
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