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October 18, 2012

Kunsthal Rotterdam Art Heist: Conferring with Charley Hill, former Scotland Yard art detective and undercover agent

By Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Charley Hill, former Scotland Yard art detective (who helped to recover "The Scream") and private investigator, shared his expertise and opinion with the ARCA Blog on the Rotterdam art heist at the Kunsthal art gallery on October 16, 2012.

ARCA Blog: The space at the 20-year-old Kunsthal Rotterdam shows temporary exhibitions and has no permanent collection. Rotterdam Police have said that the Kunsthal had a very good technological security system but no on-site guards. Did this make the Triton Foundation's collection vulnerable to theft? After all, the exhibit featured paintings by artists known to fetch high prices at highly publicized auctions.
Mr. Hill: If a museum is to show works of great art, it cannot be Fort Knox, nor a high security prison. So whatever the security at a museum, and the state of its alarm system, it will be vulnerable to attack. The best system is a combination of locks, bolts, strengthened glass, CCTV (seeing someone walking around with a balaclava on should be a clue that all is not well, if anyone is watching the monitor) and alarms with good human resources managing them 24 hours a day. That is expensive, and most museums cannot afford that combination, but they should always aspire to it and try to achieve it as best they can, particularly when they have other people's art treasures on loan for an exhibition.
ARCA Blog: This month in Santa Monica, California, a private collector, Jeffrey Gundlach, recovered stolen art valued around $2 million after offering a reward. However, other paintings from art heists -- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, and the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 have never been recovered. What are the chances of seeing these seven stolen works taken from the Triton Foundation while on display at the Kunsthal?
Mr. Hill: These stolen works of art are likely to turn up again because they were stolen in an intelligent way, probably little damaged. But overall, stealing masterpieces is the most stupid thing a thief or thieves can do. They are not readily realisable as cash assets. They are unsaleable on the open market. The values attributed to them, and I read in the Independent this morning here in London that a figure for all of the stolen pictures was put at £250 million. What nonsense.
I also read that they were for some secret collector and his secret collection. More stuff and nonsense. In my experience the only Captain Nemo or Dr. No character I have ever met who collected stolen works of art is George Ortiz of Geneva. He used to show anyone his superb collection of looted antiquities, and every one of his friends and enemies knows what he has got. His main friends are the city fathers of Geneva who are set to inherit it all, and his enemies begin with Lord Renfrew, the famous Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University. Jules Verne and Ian Fleming (actually, Cubby Broccoli) invented all of that secret collector nonsense. These pictures will turn up in drugs raids and other searches over time, unless the police in Rotterdam get a good tip off soon and hit the place where they are stashed now.
ARCA Blog: The Santa Monica Police and Pasadena police in California were able to recover the stolen paintings from the Jeffrey Gundlach collection at a car stereo business and at a nearby residence. One of the paintings was recovered in Glendale during what appeared to be a sale preview. In the Gundlach robbery, the thieves also stole a Porsche and watches. This robbery is more focused on the art.
Mr. Hill: My view is that this theft was particularly well organised, done quickly and in the almost certain knowledge that the thieves and what they stole would be long gone by the time the police arrived. Also, the thieves were apparently not opportunists such as the two with a ladder at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some years ago who smashed a window and took the two pictures nearest the broken glass, nor were they Balkan bandits with machine pistols like the ones who hit the Munch Museum in 2004, or the Buhrle Collection in Zurich a few years ago.
The closest pattern I know is of Irish Traveller raids on art in the 1980s through 2010. The pattern in Rotterdam the night before last was closer to that. See the art crimes of The General as he called himself, Martin Cahill of Dublin. Interestingly, one of Cahill's gang, George Mitchell, known as The Penguin, lives close to Rotterdam where he works in commodities with his Colombian, Russian, Dutch, Brit, Irish and other friends. I wonder if he has a part to play in this? He could do something about getting those pictures back, I'm sure, if any good Dutch police officer not in his pay asked him for some help.
Readers may read about Charley Hill's undercover work to recovery Edvard Munch's Scream stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 in Edward Dolnick's book The Rescue Artist. The exploits of Dublin criminal Martin Cahill are told in Mathew Hart's book The Irish Game.

We emailed a few questions to Mr. Hill that he thought we should address to our readers in the hopes of generating a thoughtful discussion:
What about the Serbian gangs who had been involved in the theft of the two Turners from the Tate Gallery which had been on loan to Frankfurt (as documented in Sandy Nairne's book Art Theft and The Case of the Stolen Turners)? Do you think the paintings, if taken by someone like that Irish gangs, would be shipped into Britain? If you were to steal these paintings from Rotterdam, what country would you ship them to?