Curator of the lost art

    How did the Tate turn the theft of two Turners into a financial and political victory for the gallery? Meet the man who negotiated their return

    Nairne

    If you are a bad guy, it makes sense to steal various things. Cars. Jewels. Copper piping. With the car, you change the number plates. With the piping, you melt it down and move it on. But unless you are a very hopeful bad guy, it makes no sense to steal a famous painting. Famous paintings cannot be turned into something else. They are instantly recognisable, internationally documented, impossible to pass off. So it takes active delusion to imagine you can make money from stealing two of Turner’s most famous pictures. Unless, that is, you get really lucky, and end up dealing with an ambitious British art institution. In which case, it seems, interesting avenues open up.

    How else to understand the Case of the Stolen Turners, or the involvement in it of a man I have always thought of as “good old Sandy Nairne”, one of the art world’s nice guys? In his day job, Sandy is the director of the National Portrait Gallery, and an excellent one at that. Some of the best museum shows of recent years have been Sandy’s doing. Until he wrote his new book, Art Theft: And the Case of the Stolen Turners, those of us who have known him a long time had no idea he had a secret identity as Nairne of the Yard: ruthless hunter-down of lost art masterpieces.

    The Case of the Stolen Turners commenced on July 28, 1994, when three men walked into the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and hid. The Kunsthalle is a barn-like modern building. The bandits found it easy to pop out of sight until 10pm, when the security guard whose job it was to clear the galleries completed his rounds. The guard was about to switch on the security systems when the bandits jumped out, overpowered him, and shut him in a broom cupboard.

    Over the next 15 minutes they proceeded to unscrew from the walls three famous paintings that had arrived in Frankfurt for a temporary exhibition about the great German poet Goethe.

    One was a landscape by the German romantic David Caspar Friedrich. The other two were a pair of matching Turners borrowed from the Tate in London — Shade and Darkness, and Light and Colour. Tucking the masterpieces under their arms, the bandits scooted out of the back of the gallery, through the goods entrance, and off they sped.

    So far, so predictable. Friedrichs and Turners are hugely expensive. Expensive things attract lunkheads and bandits. Frankfurt has plenty of both. The Kunsthalle turned out to be too easy to get in and out of. So the theft itself was unremarkable. It was everything that followed, before the Turners were returned 8½ years later, that rewrote the rule book on art theft and challenged the logical given that stealing famous paintings is a bad idea.

    Back in London, the morning after the theft, Sandy Nairne, then a senior curator at the Tate Gallery, received a call from his boss, Nick Serota. The Tate’s director had been rung up in the night by the Frankfurt museum authorities. Serota, as it happened, was a Turner specialist. When the thieves stole a pair of the Tate’s Turners on his watch, they made things personal. Serota told Sandy to hop onto the first plane to Frankfurt.

    As director of programmes at the Tate, Sandy’s job was to organise exhibitions, not to hunt down international criminals. But he and Serota went back a long way. Sandy was a man of proven discretion: a trusted confidant. Certainly, there is something fresh-faced and upright about him. Looking up his CV, I see that he rowed for Oxford, which is entirely predictable. Not much else is, in the puzzling affair of the boomerang Turners. The pictures are now on show at Tate Britain. I visited them last week to remind myself of their swirling mystery. Both depict the mighty flood God sent down to Earth in biblical times to punish mankind for its sins. Light and Colour shows the morning after the Great Deluge. Returned to the Tate in 2002, it is the more frenzied of the two images. Shade and Darkness, meanwhile, imagines Earth on the evening of the tsunami. That painting was returned in 2000. But it was then put into deep storage while the Tate denied categorically that it had been found.

    Sandy Nairne’s book is supposed to be an insider’s account of what happened. I certainly expected to find all the answers about the recovery of the missing masterpieces. But even after a third full reading, the book seems to raise more questions than it answers. Where the ethical rights in this case finish, and the wrongs begin, is fuzzy.

    “What I wanted was to put together a story that was unusual, that I’d seen all the way through, from the moment just after the theft to the moment of the two recoveries,” he explains. “I wasn’t in a position to investigate the gangster circles of Frankfurt. I’m not that kind of investigative journalist. It wasn’t just unusual that I’d seen it all the way through. It was unusual that I’d seen it from the perspective of a museum person.”

    Sandy is certainly one of those. He finally looks the part as well. The time gods have managed to whiten his buoyant sixth-form hair and remove the rural rosiness from his cheeks. As we sip tea in china cups around a large mahogany table in his director’s office at the National Portrait Gallery, this impressively patrician new Sandy never allows himself to get visibly excited by the tale of dark criminal shenanigans and lost gallery innocence that I have come here to examine. He’s still boyish and handsome, of course. But he strikes me today as extra-careful.

    The day after the robbery, he was taken around the Kunsthalle by an apologetic Frankfurt organiser. Where the two Turners had previously hung, there was a poignant stretch of bare wall.

    It was obvious the theft had been easier to pull off than it should have been. At the back, the museum opens directly onto the streets of the old town. Once out, the thieves were able to bundle themselves quickly into their getaway van.

    Much of Sandy’s book, most of the middle, is given over to the five years of shadow boxing that followed: the countless failed trips to Frankfurt, the constant snippets of misinformation, the attempted frauds and wrong turns. The week after the robbery, a mysterious Mr Rothstein phoned the Tate and demanded £30,000 for the return of its Turners. Ludicrously, Sandy’s phone dealings with him were covered by a BBC film crew working with the Metropolitan Police on a programme about art theft.

    Mr Rothstein turned out to be a 24-year-old Nigerian chancer from west London who was caught, on TV, exiting the platform at Westbourne Park with a bin liner over his head. The men who had stolen the Turners turned out to be low-grade rental snatch thieves from the Frankfurt underworld: their fingerprints were all over the Schirn Kunsthalle. They were arrested but refused to talk. It appeared the heist had been set up by forces higher up in the Frankfurt dark zone.

    The Turners were probably in the clutches of some ex-Yugoslav nasties known as the Balkan Bandits.

    Looking up from my delicate cup of tea to examine, again, the casually chattering Sandy Nairne, I am struck by the powerful sense of wrongness that defines him in this case. He has never quite fitted in.

    The first time I met him he was director of exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in those days a den of mad creativity that kept testing the boundaries of decency.

    Sandy would stride about in sweaters and corduroys looking completely wrong. It was as if Bertie Wooster had joined the Hell’s Angels. However, one thing he definitely is, is unflappable. Where you or I might have sunk our teeth into the dog after the 10th or 11th raising of false hopes in the case of the Turners, Sandy kept striding purposefully onto the dawn plane to Frankfurt. Until finally, in 1999, five years after the theft, a breakthrough.

    A German lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, who had defended some of Frankfurt’s murkiest low-lifers, let it be known he had access to information about the pictures. The “other side” was prepared to negotiate. For a price.

    It was always going to be about money in the end. At this point in the story the behaviour of all involved becomes interestingly nuanced: Sandy, the Tate, the Metropolitan Police, which had been consulted from the start, the German lawyer, the insurers, even the baddies. Nobody does next what you might have expected them to do. When paintings travel to exhibitions they need to be specially insured. In the case of the Turners, this joint insurance value had been set at £24m.

    When they were stolen, the insurers, Lloyd’s, had no choice but to pay up. The Tate put the money in a special high-interest account, where it needed to remain untouched unless and until the paintings were found; £24m is a lot of cash to have sitting in the bank doing nothing, and as the months turned into years, the Tate found itself in the frustrating position of having all this lovely lolly in the bank, but no chance of using it.

    Serota and Sandy, meanwhile, were tied up with plans for a new branch of the Tate to be opened at Bankside on the Thames as part of the millennium celebrations. Today we know it as Tate Modern. The Blair government was keen to proclaim itself a champion of modern culture. The opening of Tate Modern in millennium year was to be a prize feather in its cap. How intriguing, then, that at exactly this point in the drama, an unexpected actor strides onto the stage: Tony Blair’s paymaster general, Geoffrey Robinson.

    Robinson was the generous chap who lent Peter Mandelson £373,000 to help with his mortgage; and it was Robinson who now organised an unprecedented deal with the Tate’s insurers that allowed the gallery to buy back the debt for its stolen Turners. As a result of this “buy-back of title”, as the process is called, the Tate paid the insurers £8m and was now able to access the rest of the insurance payment deposited in the bank — which had grown from £24m to £26m — and would keep that money in the event of the paintings being recovered.

    The buy-back was certainly innovative. The chief insurer, Robert Hiscox, would later recall: “Nobody had ever bought back the title to an item before it was recovered.” Robinson, in his autobiography, The Unconventional Minister, says the insurance money “was needed for the Bankside building”. Sandy firmly disagrees. It was not spent on Tate Modern but on a new storage facility in Southwark — without which Tate Modern could not have functioned. There was, he admits, some “bizarre bit of government accounting” that allowed the monies from the insurance to be set against the Bankside outlay, but only “as a kind of balancing sum”. It was theoretical accounting.

    I put it to Sandy that the stolen Turners seemed to have gained themselves powerful friends in government, and that Nick Serota was proving to be a brilliant political operator. “He loves it. He really loves it. Did you ever meet his mum? She was terrific. And I think it was always there with Nick, this feel for politics.”

    No, Sandy, I never did meet the famed Labour peer, Baroness Serota. But I read that she was “the sort who got on with the job, who found out where the oil cans were kept and made sure the wheels went on turning”. Sandy himself never had to oil any wheels, or speak to the arts minister. Nick, he nods, probably did.

    Because of the new agreement with the insurers, the Tate now had an unexpected £18m in the bank. Seven million of that was destined for the Tate storage facility in Stockwell. The rest was available to progress matters in the Turner case. Already, with the full agreement of the Metropolitan Police, a $250,000 reward had been offered for information leading to the return of the pictures. Now, five years after the theft, the Tate could afford to be more generous.

    Two Met officers who had been involved in the initial investigation, Mick Lawrence and Jurek “Rocky” Rokoszynski, both of whom had now retired from the force, were hired as independent retrieval experts to continue the pursuit. It was Rocky and Lawrence who made contact with Edgar Liebrucks, the German lawyer with connections in the Frankfurt underworld. They were certain he could get the pictures. For a price. The sum Liebrucks demanded for the first of the stolen Turners was DM 5m, around £3m at the time. This money was not a ransom, insists Sandy. It was “a fee for information leading to the recovery of the picture”. Sandy is extra careful to spell this out to me. Did you get that, Waldemar? “A fee for information.” Not a ransom.

    Well, yes, I get it. But I don’t buy it. It’s legal. But it’s a grey area, right?

    “No. It’s grey as you go into it, but you have to find a way out of it that becomes clear.”

    In one of the happiest passages in his book, he describes his uncomplicated relief at finally encountering Shade and Darkness in Liebrucks’ office. As I see it, there is nothing uncomplicated about how the release was enabled. Sandy must have known that some of that money was going to end up in the hands of the bad guys.

    “Yes, it seems likely. Technically, I don’t know where the money went. I paid it to Liebrucks as the agreed ‘fee for information’. What Liebrucks did with it he did not say. All we knew was he was in discussion with people who seemed to want money in order to release the paintings. The critical thing was getting back the pictures.”

    Was anything permissible for that to happen? “Absolutely not. I was conscious I could only do things on which I had the authority and which were legal. I could never have done anything that was in any way other than authorised.”

    The first of the stolen Turners to be released, Shade and Darkness, was imported back to Britain, inconspicuously, “as a 19th-century landscape”. Er, doesn’t that constitute flim-flamming British customs? Not telling them it was an important Turner? Next in line to be misled was the British press. When whispers began to circulate that one of the Turners had been found, the Tate released a statement, in November 2000, signed by Nicholas Serota, denying any progress: “Currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted,” it said. Remind me never to trust a Tate press release again.

    The return of the first picture had ended so successfully, Sandy was hopeful the second Turner would follow quickly. As the euro had now been launched, Liebrucks was expecting some €2.5m, the equivalent of DM 5m, for his “fee for information”. Sandy, meanwhile, had changed jobs. In November 2002, having been turned down for the directorship of Tate Modern, he was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery. However, as the man who had negotiated the return of the first Turner, he was asked to stay on, unpaid, to recover the second. He agreed — but only if he could write a book about the experience.

    The negotiations for the second painting turned out to be even more tortuous than for the first. The bad guys of Frankfurt, it seems, enjoy making Britain’s public galleries sweat. Finally, however, the second Turner, too, was thrown back over the wall into the waiting arms of Sandy Nairne. And on December 20, 2002, as an early Christmas present to the nation, the Tate brought out another press release: this time, a truthful one. The Turners were back.

    One way of understanding these puzzling events is that they turned out well. The Tate got its Turners back. The insurers got some insurance back. The baddies made some money. Everyone’s happy. Another way of understanding them is that the Tate behaved ingloriously for a public institution. The insurers lost £18m. And the baddies are laughing all the way to the bank.