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September 8, 2015

Charley Hill, Dick Ellis, and the Recovery of Paintings Stolen Six Years Ago

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Museum Security Network sent out a link to an article in the United Kingdom's The Daily Mail about the recovery of stolen art: "Millions of pounds worth of paintings stolen from the country mansion of cider heir found by 'The Scream' sleuth".

The Scream referred to in this article is the painting by Edvard Munch stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 and the subject of Edward Dolnick's 2006 book The Rescue Artist (which won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime). The back of the book describes the investigation:
Baffled and humiliated, the Norwegian police turned to the one man they believed could help: a half English, half American undercover cop named Charley Hill, the world's greatest art detective... a complicated mix of brilliance, foolhardiness, and charm whose hunt for a purloined treasure would either cap an illustrious career or be the fiasco that would haunt him forever.
I have never met Charley Hill (here's a link to some background on Hill and The Scream), but over the years we have corresponded via email on subjects related to art crime that have been covered on this blog (such as this). So I shot off an email to Mr. Hill and asked for his comment. He responded that Dick Ellis would be the best person to quote because "it was his job" and that the recovery of the artworks taken from the Somerset estate of Esmond and Susie Bulmer had nothing to do with Hill's work in recovering "The Scream".

Dick Ellis is the retired founder of The Metropolitan Police's Art and Antiquities Squad at New Scotland Yard in London.  He is also an annual lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. Emma Jones wrote about Ellis for The Financial Times in 2013 and CBC Radio interviewed him here. Ellis wrote an email today for the ARCA blog:
The recovery of the Bulmer's stolen paintings again focuses attention on to the increasing role of the private sector in the investigation and recovery of stolen art, antiques and cultural property. With many countries facing a continuing period of austerity cut backs, their law enforcement agencies have seen even fewer police resources being devoted to this area of crime.

In this particular instance, the victims suffered the trauma of a violent robbery at the hands of five masked criminals who bound the house sitter to the stairs where she remained for some 18 hours. The loss was substantial and included jewellery, sculpture ,and a canteen of silver cutlery in addition to the 16 paintings valued together at £2 million.

Whilst the police response to such a violent crime was swift, the investigation was uncertain as to the direction it should take.The lack of understanding of the commodity, stolen fine art and antiques, is common to many law enforcement agencies and not just to those in the UK underlining the lack of training that police receive in this subject.

In 2010, a year after the theft, the victims and their insurers turned to the private sector for help as it was here that they could utilise the services of professional art crime consultants and investigators. 

Working with the police but independently of them, I was able to revitalise an investigation that had lost both direction and police resources. With regular progress reports the police were able to continue to develop their investigation without devoting vast resources to the enquiry, leaving them free to attend to the day to day pressures of policing.

In June 2015, whilst I was lecturing to the ARCA students in Italy, Charley Hill took a telephone call from a friendly journalist and was introduced to her source who was willing to share the information he had. On my return to the UK, Charley introduced me to the intermediary and we were then able to work together to achieve the recovery of the stolen paintings.  

The recovery required working with the insurers, their lawyers and with the police and provides a model of how art recovery in the future will depend far more on the resources and expertise of the private sector working in partnership with law enforcement.

The inside story of the this recovery will form the basis of the lecture on the future of art recovery to be given during the 2016 ARCA course in Amelia, Italy which will also look at the authentication and forensic examination of stolen art.
In 2016, Ellis will be teaching "The High Stakes World of Art Policing, Protection and Investigation" June 8-10 and June 13-15 in Amelia, Umbria. You may find out more about ARCA and the postgraduate certificate program in Italy here.


Nice article! Hope this summer at Amelia, Umbria was wonderful.