'I posed as an agent for a wheeler-dealer'

‘I posed as an agent for a wheeler-dealer’

Sunday, June 13, 2010 0:54 IST

What has been your most exciting experience as an art detective?
On September 1, 1993, I was acting as an undercover cop portraying myself as a middleman for Middle Eastern wheeler-dealers. A Belgian gendarme was posing as my driver/bodyguard at Antwerp Airport. We went into the airport restaurant that morning and met two Irish gangsters who were part of a gang run by Martin “The General” Cahill in Dublin. After initial pleasantries, I went outside with one of the two gangsters to the airport car park where in the back of a Peugeot sports car were several large sports bags. In one was the famous painting of A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid by Jan Vermeer and in another was Goya’s famous portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate. I gave a secret signal and two large cars quietly pulled up with the Gendarme SWAT Squad in them. They all piled out and pointed their ‘Dirty Harry’ .44 Magnums at us and shouted in Flemish (which I don’t speak) to lie on the ground. And that was it, our plan had worked. It had taken seven years from the time of the theft of those paintings from Russborough House in County Wicklow, Ireland in May 1986.

Since the pieces stolen are impossible to sell, what could be the reasons for art theft?
There must be individual quirks among those who steal masterpieces. In my experience, there are no Dr No, Mr Big or Captain Nemo types who collect these kinds of things for themselves, nor as you point out is there a market for them. So, the allure or aesthetic magnetism of a given masterpiece is a factor, but stupid greed is more often the over-riding factor in their theft.

What do you like about art detective work?
The opportunity to take part in an investigation into armed robberies led me to become an undercover cop specialising in art crime when I was at Scotland Yard. The greatest appeals to me were that I was good at it and it was worth doing. It is difficult to become a police art detective because it is time-consuming and expensive. I would suggest that investigative journalism and computer research are the future for art detective work.

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