missing masterpieces and a tale made for Hollywood

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missing masterpieces and a tale made for Hollywood

Every so often a documentary with an unpromising title turns out to be a cracker. So it was with Stolen: Catch the Art Thieves (BBC Two), which played out in the manner of a glossy thriller.

It was the story of a robbery in 1994 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Germany. The targets were two JMW Turner paintings – Light and Color and Shade and Darkness (and a third work by Caspar David Friedrich, but the program was not concerned with that). A thief hid in the museum until after dark, then opened the door and let in an accomplice; they tied up the lone guard on duty, and escaped with the paintings in a white Ford Transit van. Isn’t it always a white Ford Transit van?

The Turners were loaned from the Tate, and what followed was a most compelling story of the Tate’s efforts to get them back. The cast of characters could have come straight out of a Hollywood film, including Rocky, a “tough guy” undercover agent for Scotland Yard whose demeanor made it very easy for him to pose as a European criminal. “He was not lawless,” said Sandy Nairne, the debonair former deputy director of the Tate, “but he had his own ways of working.”

Nairne’s role in this saga was quite something. Just as it happens in the films, he was contacted by phone by a man who claimed to have the paintings, and ordered him to attend an appointment at Paddington station. A Metropolitan Police officer went in Nairne’s place, while Nairne hung from his office window to give the impression during phone calls that he was on his way. The man turned out to be an opportunist, rather than a criminal mastermind: his disguise was a garbage can with two eye holes cut into it.

I won’t spoil the rest for you if you haven’t seen it yet, but also in the mix was a Yugoslav crime kingpin, a colorful lawyer, a secret meeting in a forest, and a disgruntled Rocky who stopped to sail his yacht around New Zealand. The film was greatly helped by its access to telephone recordings and footage from the time. It may have been a case of “art kidnapping” rather than abduction, but the stakes were high and the investigative methods similar – even to a demand for “proof of life”, which in this case meant Polaroids of the paintings, rather than ‘ a kidnap victim holding up a copy of today’s newspaper.

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