A BRUSH WITH THE LAW
Art detective Charles Hill on his extraordinary record at tracking down stolen works of art.
TERESA LEVONIAN COLE
The trouble with Charles Hill is that he can’t talk. Or rather, he can talk – extremely eloquently, in fact – but won’t. “...No, you’d better not say that. A country not far from France”, maybe... Two immensely famous paintings among a cache stolen from the [mumble] collection. More than two years later, I was contacted by a charming crook in London, who said that “Mr. Big” (from some lawless and nameless East European country) “wanted to see me with information that might lead to their recovery. Progress. The local police were delighted, of course. But better if my involvement is not known.” In this instance, a current assignment, one senses Hill’s discretion is more to protect the amour-propre of his colleagues than for his safety – although the villains he courts in the line of duty are a far cry from the raffish gentleman-thieves beloved of Hollywood art heists.
Hill, formerly detective chief inspector of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad, is Britain’s premier art sleuth, the trump card played when all else fails. With over three decades of experience, his clients include museums and galleries around the world, as well as historic houses and castles. Recovered Vermeers, Goyas, Cranachs, and a Titian that was stolen from Longleat, home to the Marquess of Bath in the Southwest of England, are among the many feathers in his beret.
Contrary to the popular myth that paintings are stolen to order for reclusive collectors to enjoy, he says, the prosaic reality has more to do with organized crime: “They fund arms or drugs, or get used as bargaining tools in the event of capture.” When called upon, this mild-mannered, erudite, ex-Vietnam paratrooper with a love of opera, degrees in history and theology, and a youthful desire to become a priest, rolls up his sleeves and does whatever it takes. “I am prepared to meet anyone who might provide a lead,” he says. “These underworld figures talk to me, because I always keep my word.”
Discretion is double-edged, however, and can be tricky to square with the authorities, but Hill remains adamant: “I would never negotiate with the thieves, and I would never pay a ransom. But paintings change hands quickly, and you soon enter a grey area. A reward for information is quite different – ultimately, the important thing is to recover the painting.”
The results speak for themselves. Among the triumphs Hill can talk about on the record was his role in the recovery of Munch’s The Scream, stolen in 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo. “Two men with a ladder simply smashed a window and made off with one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. All over in less than a minute!”
The heist had all the elements of farce: a priceless painting hung next to a window overlooking the street; robbers falling off ladders; a dozy guard oblivious to CCTV screens showing the thieves at work – and re-setting the alarm when it went off, assuming it was a false alarm. No witnesses, no leads – nothing. Just a postcard left by the perpetrators, saying: “Thanks for the poor security!”
Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1670-1671)
– stolen in Ireland in 1986, recovered in Antwerp seven years later
Enter Hill, then working for Scotland Yard. “With two colleagues, I devised a plan, whereby I would pose as a representative of the Getty Museum, wanting to buy the painting. The Getty created an identity for me, and with authority, we were given false documents. There were some scary moments, but the thieves – a psychopath, the Scandinavian kick-boxing champion, and a dodgy dealer – fell for it. We settled on a price, a fraction of its real value. As soon as I recovered the painting, the thieves were arrested and the money retrieved.”
Driven by his passion for art, with distinctly bookish leanings and a disdain for bureaucracy, Hill must have cut an eccentric figure at the Yard. But any frustration he may have felt at the grinding pace of officialdom was more than offset by the thrill of his successful undercover operations. “I shall never forget finding Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. It had been stolen from the collection of Sir Alfred Beit at Russborough House in County Wicklow near Dublin in 1986 by Martin “The General” Cahill.
“Seven years later, I put on a mid-Atlantic accent and posed as an art dealer who had Arab buyers lined up for the Vermeer. The criminals loved the cover story. I remember being taken to a multi-story car park in Antwerp by a gangster and having to mask my emotions as I unwrapped the painting. It is the greatest masterpiece I have had the pleasure to hold.”
Though he has given up covert operations (“too dangerous”), Hill is no less active today in the murky world of recovering stolen art. “I never give up,” he chuckles. “A case stays open until I have solved it.” He has also taken a consultancy role in parallel, tracing heirs and missing assets, and advising collectors, dealers, public and private institutions on art risk management and security. His most significant concern at present, however – and one he is anxious to air – is the threat from a new and far more dangerous direction, one for which, he feels, we are unprepared.
“There is an enormous threat to certain holy sites and cultural institutions from attacks by extremists,” he warns, citing the destruction of cultural monuments in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a latter-day wave of iconoclasm, and numerous attacks on holy shrines in both Pakistan and Iraq. “The great collections in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, are all vulnerable. Unspecified threats were made by Al Qaeda groups against ‘landmark sites’ in France and Germany. What is considered a ‘landmark site’? Nobody is immune.”
The challenge of saving international masterpieces from destruction has become a matter for global concern, requiring a proper risk assessment of the museums, galleries, and religious landmarks’ vulnerabilities. It is a view shared by many security experts, but one that few dare to voice. “We are being faced with the threat of a new and devastating form of theft, through destruction.” If Hill is right, we will look back on the days of gangsters, ladders, and smashed glass with nostalgia.