Jul 23, 2007

Coins, Country Houses and Law Enforcement

Karin Goodwin has a piece in The Herald today titled Masterpiece Detectives: inside the investigator's art. It details the theft of 2000 coins from Lord Stewartby recently, and covers all the big thefts from Madonna of the Yarnwinder to the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. She also talks with the former middleman for stolen art "ArtHostage", as well as Dick Ellis the former head of the Met art and antiques squad. Here is an excerpt:

Lord Stewartby's coin collection was said by experts to be unique. The former Tory minister started it when he was just four years old and, more than 60 years later, he had amassed almost 2000 coins, dating back as far as 1136 and valued at more than £500,000.

They included a silver penny minted under the reign of Robert the Bruce and others struck under James I and II. In short, it was the most historically important collection in Britain. A leading numismatist, the 72-year-old peer had retired in May and, anticipating time to concentrate on research, had taken his collection home to Broughton Green, the house in the Borders where 39 Steps author John Buchan once lived, to be catalogued. But it seems he was not the only person attracted to rare coins. Between June 6 and 7, while he and his wife were on holiday, the house was broken into and the collection taken. "It was such a great shock," he said at the time.

The £50,000 reward he has put up for information leading to its safe return speaks volumes about his determination to get the collection back. That means a select band of individuals may be wondering if the phone will ring requesting their expertise. A group of former senior police officers - most of whom worked for the Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit - loss adjustors and international data-base co-ordinators are the UK's art detectives.

For the most part they insist that criminals behind art thefts are not really any different from any other. They reject outright too, the myth of a Dr No-type figure sitting in his nuclear bunker surrounded by precious masterpieces and fine antiques.

But it's certainly big business. Internationally, an estimated 10,000 works - collectively worth billions of pounds - are taken from museums, private collections and country homes every year. These supplement the catalogue of the already missing, which runs to some 479 Picassos, 347 Miros, 290 Chagalls, 225 Dalis, 196 Durers, 190 Renoirs, 168 Rembrandts and 150 Warhols. Internationally, the most famous thefts include that of 13 works, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt and collectively worth $300m, from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston.

Mark Dalrymple is credited as having "founded the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat) in the late 1980s... It resulted in the abolition of the market ouvert principle, and, for a while at least, better co-operation from dealers." The market overt rule had long been criticized as a "medieval relic" and I think the last straw was the theft of valuable works from Barristers at Lincoln's Inn. A Reynolds and a Gainsborough portrait were stolen, then sold at Bermondsey for £ 145. The Barristers had to purchase the work back because the good faith purchaser had good title under the market overt exception to the common law rule nemo dat quod non habet (meaning he who has no title passes no title). Professor Norman Palmer wrote briefly about the event in an editorial here.

Otherwise its an interesting overview, which highlights the difficulty in protecting remote country houses and garnering enough law enforcement resources. The Met's art and antiques squad has only 4 officers, and those are in jeopardy of being halved.


Error:

I misread the source article and made a pretty obvious mistake. ArtHostage, the former stolen art handler, was of course not credited with helping to bring about the end of the market overt principle. Rather it was Mark Dalrymple. Many thanks to ArtHostage himself for pointing out the error. I have corrected the relevant text in the first and second-to-last paragraphs. You can read his thoughts here.

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