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August 02 2012

Thieves steal Derby Museum artefacts worth £53,000

Police say hoard of items, including 18th- and 19th-century watches, were taken from depot between 2 May and 19 June

A collection of coins, medals and watches worth £53,000 has been stolen from a museum's storage facility. The 1,000 artefacts from the Derby Museum and Art Gallery's city-based storage site were stolen some time between 2 May and 19 June, Derbyshire police said. None of the items have been found.

Among the hoard is a collection of about 20 18th- and 19th-century gold and silver watches worth up to £3,000 each. These includes examples made by clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst, who was a member of the Midlands' based Lunar Society, and a contemporary of famous Derby artist Joseph Wright.

Coins dating back more than 800 years have also been stolen, as well as more modern coins from the early 20th century. The items were locked away and only used for exhibitions and special viewings.

A spokeswoman for Derbyshire police said museum staff had worked on the collection recently, but the thefts came to light only when another museum made a request to borrow some of the items.

The theft was recorded with the Metropolitan police arts crime unit as well as the Arts Council England security advisory service in the hope that the thief would try to sell them.

Meanwhile, additional security measures and procedures have been put in place at the storage facility.

Investigating officer Detective Constable Dee Hornblower said: "There has been no sign of a break-in at the premises, so the possibility that this was carried out with inside knowledge has at this stage not been ruled out. We have circulated details of the stolen items to every police force in the country in the hope that they can be traced."

Derby city council cabinet member for leisure and culture Martin Repton said: "Our ultimate fear is that some of these items which are of a relative low monetary value could potentially be discarded by the culprit or culprits, meaning that they would be lost for ever with little chance of recovery.

"We are therefore also appealing to members of the public who may have any information to contact Derbyshire police."

Anyone with information about the incident, or the whereabouts of the stolen items, should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800-555 111. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2012

Cezanne masterpiece recovered by Serbian police

Three suspects arrested after discovery of painting thought to be Boy in a Red Waistcoat, stolen at gunpoint in 2008 in Zurich

Police in Serbia believe they have recovered an impressionist masterpiece by Paul Cezanne worth at least £68m that was stolen at gunpoint in one of the world's biggest art heists four years ago, a police official has said.

"We believe the painting is Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat and three suspects were detained in connection with that," said a police official.

"Experts in Serbia and abroad are trying to ascertain whether the painting is an original. This painting is worth tens of millions of euros," the official added.

The canvas was one of four paintings stolen from a Swiss art gallery in 2008 by a trio of masked robbers who burst in just before closing time and told staff to lay on the floor.

The paintings were reportedly worth over £100m at the time and the heist was the biggest art theft in Swiss history and one of the largest in the world. The painting was stolen in 2008 from the Emil Georg Bührle gallery in Zurich, a private collection founded by a second world war arms dealer and entrepreneur.

Two of the stolen canvasses, one by Claude Monet and the other by Vincent van Gogh, were recovered days later abandoned in a car, but the other two – the Cezanne and a painting by Edgar Degas, have been missing for the last four years.

Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat is thought to have been painted around 1888 and depicts a boy in traditional Italian dress – a red waistcoat, a blue handkerchief and a blue belt. Three other versions of the painting are in museums in the United States.

Last October, Serbian police recovered two paintings by Pablo Picasso stolen in 2008 from a gallery in the Swiss town of Pfäffikon, near Zurich.

The police official said law enforcement agencies from several countries had co-operated in the investigation that led to the apparent recovery of the Cezanne masterpiece.

Serbia's state prosecutor is expected to issue a statement or give a press briefing on the case later on Thursday. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 22 2012

Victim of LS Lowry paintings robbery relieved after handlers jailed

Ivan Aird, a fine art dealer and Lowry collector, endured a knife being held to his young daughter's throat during robbery

The victim of a harrowing robbery during which gang members held a knife to his young daughter's throat has spoken of his relief after two men were jailed for handling stolen LS Lowry paintings.

Ivan Aird, a fine art dealer and Lowry collector, told the Guardian: "This has brought closure to something that has been going on and on and on. It has made me and my family ill for nearly five years. Now we want to get on with our lives."

Kevin Marlow, 29, and Gerard Starkey, aged 50, both from Bootle, pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods. Marlow received six-and-a-half years after also pleading guilty to possession of Class A drugs with intent to supply. Starkey was handed three years and three months.

Sentencing, Judge Graham Morrow QC said there was no suggestion any of the defendants in the case were behind the robbery of the artworks

The case at Liverpool crown court followed the earlier trial of Casey Miller from Denton in Greater Manchester. The 23-year-old was given an indefinite jail term in March 2009 after being convicted of robbery in an "audacious and well-planned" raid on Aird's Cheshire home. Of the four men who took part in the actual theft of the paintings, worth £1.7m, three are still at large.

The nightmare for Aird and his family began early on the morning of 3 May 2007. A man posing as a postman knocked on the Aird family's door in Cheadle Hulme. When Louise Aird, who was carrying the couple's two-year-old daughter Sabrina in her arms, opened the door, she was confronted by Miller brandishing a 10-inch knife. Three other men followed him into the house.

"They tied me up with a cable and had a knife in my back," Aird, 46, said. "They said they would slit my throat. Then they said they would kill the baby if we moved, that's what they kept saying. They took everything out of the bottom half of the house."

The stolen works by Lowry included The Viaduct, a £700,000 painting that had once belonged to Sir Alec Guinness. Another was Tanker Entering the Tyne. A pallette and brush set used by the artist were also taken as well as a series of pencil drawings. In total, the gang made off with 14 pieces of art.

Aird thought he would never see the paintings again. But an investigation by officers from the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit (Titan), Greater Manchester police and Merseyside police into the drugs trade and the theft of high-value paintings led to the recovery of the Lowrys at addresses in Halewood and Bootle in July 2011. At one of the properties, officers discovered around 10kg of amphetamine paste with a street value of about £100,000 and around 100,000 ecstasy tablets with a street value of approximately £300,000.

Lowry was a friend of Aird's father after the two men met at Salford Art Gallery. "Mr Lowry used to come to my mum and dad's every Saturday," said Aird. "He used to drop off to sleep on the sofa. He was always making jokes. I remember the first time I went to his house, there were cobwebs everywhere. He told me he would put a bowl of milk out for all the spiders and that would get rid of them. I believed that for years."

The Aird family's friendship with Lowry instilled a love of his artwork in Aird. His business specialises in Lowry paintings and, until the robbery, he hung a personal collection at home. He no longer has any artwork of value at his house. Instead, a number are on display at the Lowry Centre in Salford.

Detective Superintendent Jason Hudson from Titan said: "We were delighted to be able to return these precious paintings to the victim. They were in a poor state of repair when they were recovered and are in need of restoration so it is very fortunate that we were able to locate them before they were irreparably damaged."

Malcolm Shield, aged 41, from Halewood, who has admitted possession of Class A and B drugs with intent to supply and handling stolen goods will be sentenced next month. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 21 2011

Public art: is there any way to beat the thieves?

The theft of a £500,000 Barbara Hepworth sculpture from Dulwich Park shows how vulnerable public art works are to determined thieves

How do we stop thieves from making off with our public art works? The question arises from this week's disappearance of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Two Forms (Divided Circle), from its plinth in south London's Dulwich Park. The sculpture, which had resided safely in the park since 1970, is believed to have been stolen by scrap-metal thieves, who will only manage to realise a tiny fraction of its value (around £500,000).

There are thousands of public works like Hepworth's in parks, gardens and town squares all round the country. Many curators are understandably reluctant to discuss the security measures they currently have in place. But Stephen Feeke, a curator at the New Art Centre, a gallery and sculpture park in Wiltshire, says flood-lighting is a good way to deter thieves and vandals. "You've also got to look at securely gating and fencing the perimeter of a park," he adds. "The important thing is to block access for vehicles: a bronze sculpture is far too heavy to carry off without a car."

Paul Ekblom, of the Design Against Crime Research Centre at London's Central Saint Martins, warns against the kneejerk imposition of fortifications. "We need to look at introducing security measures to new sculptures – for instance, using forensic coding that might allow the metal to be traced. It's also important to make it clear that these thefts are totally unacceptable: our artists and culture ministers need to stand up and say: 'Shame on you.'" © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 15 2011

From the archive, 15 December 1913: Mona Lisa's return: Theft from Louvre explained

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 15 December 1913

The report that Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait of "Mona Lisa" has been found in Florence seems amply confirmed.

What is known of the theft from the Paris Louvre in August, 1911, and the discovery in Florence last week, is that an Italian named Perugia a few days ago attempted to sell the picture to a Florentine dealer. When arrested he said he had been employed for several years at the Louvre. One day when alone in the room where the "Mona Lisa" hung he broke up the frame and hid the panel under his blouse. By that means he was able to remove it unobserved. Recently he wrote to the dealer in Florence and with him opened the negotiations which led to his arrest.

When the news reached Paris, where Perugia had once been sentenced for some petty offence, the police searched their records and found that the markings of the man's thumb corresponded exactly with an impression made by the thief on the broken frame which he left behind.

The "Giornale d'Italia" has received an interview with Signor Geri, who is director of an "Ancient and Modern Art Gallery" there. Signor Geri states that in a letter from Paris, Perugia, who signed himself "Leonard," gave him the fullest assurances regarding the authenticity of the picture and promised to allow him a reduction of 25 per cent on the price for the benefit of the public galleries of Italy. Signor Geri and Professor Poggi, to whom the letter was shown, thought it was a joke.

On December 10 "Leonard" called on Signor Geri. He at once asked Signor Geri to come to his hotel, and, showing him the picture, asked 500,000 francs for it. Signor Geri agreed, and asked him to come next day to the Uffizi Gallery to verify the picture. "Leonard" arrived a little late, and the three repaired to his hotel, where he showed them the picture. After examining it Professor Poggi said that it must be conveyed to the Uffizi for identification. "Leonard" consented, and took the "Gioconda", wrapped in red cloth, under his arm. They drove to the Uffizi, where the work's authenticity was established.

Perugia was arrested in an hotel just as he was coming downstairs. Signor Tarantelli, chief of police, said he had interrogated Perugia at length. He was convinced that the statements made by Perugia were sincere. In his opinion Perugia is not abnormal, but a simple fellow who did not altogether understand the importance of his action.

[Vincenzo Perugia was hailed a national hero by the Italian press. He served seven months in jail.] © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2011

The real-life power of Rembrandt

A mere sketch by Rembrandt made worldwide headlines this week when it was stolen. Why? Because of the artist's unrivalled, universal ability to touch our hearts

It's interesting that a stolen Rembrandt became world news this week. A drawing by the 17th-century Dutch artist was taken from a hotel in California, but has since been recovered by Los Angeles police. The reports spread rapidly even though, as art thefts go, this one fails the usual media test – the work of art in question is valued at only $250,000 (£153,000). If a mere sketch by Rembrandt with an almost sane-sounding price tag on it creates such a stir, it can only mean one thing. His charisma is truly universal.

No wonder, for Rembrandt is one of the world's supreme artists. Thieves know this. Tragically, the theft this week conforms to a pattern: Rembrandt is a name that sounds glamorous to the criminal fraternity. The most upsetting and still unsolved art theft of recent times was the taking of his painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The theft of this drawing mattered, too. Rembrandt's drawings rival those of Leonardo da Vinci for inventiveness and vitality.

Across all the media in which he worked – oil painting, drawing and printmaking – Rembrandt has an unrivalled ability to touch our hearts. He cuts through the surface effects of art to go straight to inner truths. He makes atheists conscious of their souls.

Paintings were bought by a broad cross -section of the mercantile society of 17th-century Holland. Not by the poor, but by a large and diverse crowd of merchants. Artists grew up like tulips, and what their down-to-earth audience wanted was down-to-earth depictions of real life: mesmerising lifelike pictures of flowers or food. Rembrandt offered the most primitive art pleasure of all – uncannily convincing portraits.

But Rembrandt's portraits go beyond mere verisimilitude. They seem to start inside, to capture something invisible – the self, soul, personality, call it what you will. Rembrandt's people are there with you in the room, alive and looking back. It is unsettling.

While other Dutch artists either deliberately shed or did not know the earlier styles and ideas of Renaissance Italy, Rembrandt's ambition makes him confront and build on the example of masters such as Titian. His Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 in London's National Gallery is modelled on Titian's A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, which happens to have ended up in the same museum.

Another group of Dutch painters went to Rome (which Rembrandt did not) and brought the intense light effects of Caravaggio north. But in Rembrandt's paintings, the dramatic light and dark of Caravaggio mixes with the softer styles of Titian and Giorgione to create shimmering atmospheres of gold and brown, bronze and black.

Two things are crucial to his genius, then. He shares and takes to its extreme the simple, everyday Dutch affection for real life. His portraits give what his clients wanted – a true depiction – but make this a sublime quest. Secondly, he mixes a deep knowledge of the history of painting into his palette, consciously extending the achievements of Italian artists. Out of these currents of the earthy and the elevated comes an achievement that leaves most art far behind.

These are just tentative thoughts about the genius of Rembrandt. In the end, it exceeds what anyone says about it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2011

Letters: Safety of pictures at the National Gallery

It was prompt action and quick thinking by our gallery assistant staff – following well-established procedures – that led to the swift apprehension of the attacker who vandalised two paintings by Nicholas Poussin (Staff cuts at National Gallery 'putting art at risk', 11 August). CCTV footage of the incident shows it took 16 seconds from the start of the attack to his being detained. Our conservation staff were alerted immediately and on the scene within the hour. This ensured no lasting damage to the original paint surfaces – in fact, two paintings were back on public display within 48 hours.

The system of a gallery assistant invigilating more than one room is not – as the article seems to portray – unusual or controversial in the museum and gallery field. Most galleries in London, and across the UK, Europe and beyond, use similar systems throughout their rooms because we believe this to be a more effective and reliable means of invigilation.

The National Gallery had one-third of its rooms invigilated in this way. An extension to selected rooms has been implemented with the full approval of the National security adviser, and includes a significant investment in new technology and upgrades to existing systems. The change in the number of gallery assistants is incremental, and claims that the gallery is "halving its surveillance" are untrue. We continually monitor all security arrangements and seek feedback externally and internally.

It is important to emphasise the gallery was considering such an extension long before needing to identify savings, and that there have been no "staff cuts" as a result of this change in invigilation technique – any reduction in staff numbers is the result of staff turnover.

Dr Nicholas Penny

Director, The National Gallery © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 10 2011

National Gallery's cut in number of warders condemned

Criticism of security arrangements follows vandalism of two Poussin paintings at the London gallery

The National Gallery in London has reduced the number of warders it employs in a move that has raised concerns among some art and security experts for making its collection more vulnerable to damage or theft.

News of the staff cuts comes barely a month after two Poussin masterpieces were vandalised by a man who sprayed them with red paint.

Warders, officially titled "gallery assistants", previously oversaw one room but are now required to watch over two. The gallery argues that this arrangement was planned before the need to identify savings, as a "more effective means of invigilation" and a third of the gallery's rooms use the arrangement. It also says the system is deployed by most other important galleries and museums in the UK and around the world.

However, a gallery insider believes this new system gave the vandal time to attack two paintings in room 19 –The Adoration of the Golden Calf, and The Adoration of the Shepherds – because the warder's attention was split between two rooms.

Yet the gallery is extending the arrangements, and from this week Goyas and Canalettos in rooms 38 and 39 will also be overseen by one warder only. The insider warned that the rooms were busy with "many blind spots".

The internal source said that faced with increasing visitor numbers and with "trouble-making" people entering the National Gallery, a reduction in warder numbers would place paintings in much greater danger of theft or damage. The source said: "If the policy of one warder per room had been kept…the damage would have been reduced to just one painting."

Peter Osborne, a former national security adviser to the Museums and Galleries Commission, said that cuts in security were widespread in museums. He said: "They're trying to manage with less. That's when things will start going wrong or will start going missing." In the past, museums would shut a room if they could not staff it, he recalled. Technology might improve the quality of security but it was unlikely to replace the human response.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, who has been an outspoken critic of the gallery in the past, described the security reduction as reckless. Daley said: "The most alert and attentive person cannot be in two places at once … and cannot see through walls." He acknowledged the gallery's claim that perambulatory staff were more effective, but said: "The quantity of surveillance is halved whether or not its quality improves."

Another leading expert on art security, Will Geddes, described gallery warders as being a "visual deterrent".

The National Gallery insists that the changes to its security arrangements are not a cost-saving measure.

A spokeswoman for the gallery said security was of paramount concern, adding: "The National Gallery security arrangements are in keeping with those of other major national and international galleries and museums. Our arrangements have been approved by the national security adviser for museums, as appropriate for the protection of the collection. 

"We are closely monitoring invigilation arrangements and seeking feedback externally and internally, including from the national security adviser for museums." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 05 2011

Stealing the Mona Lisa

The audacious theft of Leonardo's masterpiece in 1911 made La Giaconda an overnight star

A hundred years ago, on 21 August 1911, an Italian painter and decorator slipped from the cupboard in the Louvre where he had been hiding all night, stepped up to the Mona Lisa, freed her from her frame and left the building apparently unseen. It was 24 hours before anyone noticed she was missing. The usual line is that the Louvre was closed for maintenance and everyone thought that somebody else must have removed the picture to be photographed, or cleaned. But museums are – or were – surprisingly blind to crime, even when it involves stealing the world's most famous painting. Or perhaps not the world's most famous painting – the Mona Lisa certainly wasn't universally known in 1911. You still had to travel to the Louvre to see her. There were prints, though Leonardo's cumulative portrait, gradually painted over several years, had long proved extremely hard to copy as an engraving. And photographs did exist – indeed the French police printed off 6,500 copies for distribution in the streets of Paris immediately after her disappearance, as if to jog someone's memory. These mug-shots were also for comparison with any forgery that might turn up purporting to be the original. For the Mona Lisa wears a fine veil of craquelure – that pattern of tiny cracks that can form in the surface of a painting when it's as old as she is – that is more or less impossible to fake. Wrinkles are her positive ID. But a century ago, the painting's fame was restricted to the west, where she had been buoyed up on clouds of romantic hype ever since Walter Pater wrote in 1869: "She is older than the rocks among which she sits, like the vampire she has been dead many times . . ." which although not exactly gallant, broadcast her strange allure to hundreds of thousands.

A picture that could still come as something of a surprise: unthinkable now, but in those days reproductions of the Mona Lisa had only fairly recently become popular. What really put a face to the name was the press coverage inspired by the theft. Every major newspaper in Europe covered the story, and every story was illustrated with a reproduction of the painting. One paper, France's l'Illustration, even produced a centrespread, peddling the story that Leonardo had been in love with his sitter, and promising to work towards a colour reproduction within a couple of weeks. Millions of people who might not have seen it, might never even have heard of it, soon became experts on Leonardo's stolen painting.

One of the first suspects was Pablo Picasso. The painter had nothing to do with the crime but immediately tried to dispose of some statues that turned out to have been stolen from the same museum. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire was also brought in for questioning. No charges were brought, though suspicion followed Picasso for a while – surely a great painter would want a great painting, ran the theory. For almost two years the trail went cold.

The painting was in Switzerland or Argentina. Or it was in a cold-water flat in the Bronx or a secret room in the mansion of JP Morgan. In fact it never left Paris, or not until the thief, Vincenzo Perruggia, went to Florence in December 1913 after contacting a Florentine dealer called Alfred Geri, who he hoped would help him dispose of this unsaleable hostage for cash. Geri played along, even bringing the director of the Uffizi to the meeting at the Albergo Tripoli-Italian (needless to say swiftly renamed the Hotel La Gioconda). The painting was removed from its false-bottomed trunk. The craquelure was identified, and Geri promptly called the police.

What did Perruggia feel about the eerie, enigmatic, supercilious, exquisite, remote, satanic (call her what you will) Mona Lisa that he would have her more or less about his person for two long years?

To begin with he kept her in a cupboard, then under a stove in the kitchen, and finally in the false-bottomed trunk. For a while, he rather cockily propped her postcard on the mantelpiece, and in the letter to Geri he signs himself Leonardo Vincenzo. But fairly soon he seems to have found her hard to look at, impossible to live with; there is evidence of repeated attempts to sell her.

The object Perruggia stole is painted on a rectangle of poplar wood only 77cm high – "not even the size of the new TV screens!" was the notorious objection of Americans in the 1950s. I find that reaction strange, having the opposite feeling – that the actual painting is much bigger than I ever expect. Perhaps that's because the Mona Lisa is scaled in one's mind to the size of an infinite number of postcards and reproductions. In reality, set in concrete, behind triple layers of bulletproof glass, she seems as large as any incarcerated offender.

How the Mona Lisa looked in 1911 we shall never know. Nowadays, her photograph, her fame, precedes her so that every sighting is inflected: does she match up, does she look different, how does she compare with our expectations? The joy of seeing any painting in reality before seeing its pygmy reproductions – or worse, in the false glow of the computer – is long since over. But it is hardly controversial to suggest that Leonardo's portrait is a special case.

Her beauty, for instance. Mona Lisa – the person, not the painting – was the epitome of beauty for so many 19th-century writers and 20th-century singers. Yet to me she is anything but, with her chipmunk cheeks, close-set eyes and depilated face.

She is famous even in parts – the hunched silhouette, the complacently folded hands. But I find it hard to believe that her pole place in cultural life really has to do with intrinsic beauty – either hers or that of the painting.

The photographs of the crime scene a century ago show not a dramatically empty glass case, as one would nowadays see, or even a large expanse of bare wall, but a narrow gap between the Titians and Correggios – something more like a missing tooth. It is well known that thousands of people came to view this spot, this gap, this rumoured blank – more people, it is often pointed out, than used to visit when the painting was there. But there was something to see, not quite a blank. Four iron hooks and a dusty outline: the ghostly trace of the painting. The smile was missing, or was it hanging in the air like the proverbial Cheshire Cat? Some claimed to have felt it continuing to resonate, like a visitation. And it is, after all, the Mona Lisa's crowning glory, this artful vanishing act.

A smile is such a tricky thing to depict. It nearly always stiffens and dies on the canvas. The Mona Lisa's is only enigmatic because of Leonardo's sfumato technique – that smokey, smudgy blur where you can't see how the smile ends at each corner, so that it simply tails away, unresolved, literally open-ended.

Sfumato is not the only thing that makes her smile mysterious, of course. There are many contributory factors, but high on the list is the total absence of any visible context or event that could help to explain this peculiar smile. Vasari reduced it all to a sideshow: Leonardo had laid on musicians and jesters to keep his sitter from ennui. Some people think she was remembering lost love.

But if the Mona Lisa were handed a baby, her smile would become beatific and make her look even more like a secular Madonna. With a couple of jesters on site, she might come across as polite if disapproving. The art historian Edgar Wind once slotted her into two different scenes to illustrate this point and was able to show that the same expression could look like grief at the Crucifixion, or tipsy mirth in the context of a bacchanalian revel.

Mona Lisa smiles, but why? Nobody is talking, no jokes are being cracked, there are no letters to read, no dinners to eat, no babies to dandle or kittens to stroke: where is the probable cause? And all of the many interpretations of her smile – lonely, tragic, self-conscious, uncomfortable, superior, even sinister – depend on that lack of explanation. But what they also depend on, and did in 1911, is a much greater absence: her missing eyebrows. She has such a curious look – denuded, or as if chemotherapy had worked its bittersweet way, depriving her of not just eyebrows, in fact, but eyelashes too. Though the eyebrows are truly crucial, for they give definition not just to the eyes but to the whole face.

The Mona Lisa's eyebrows were there during Leonardo's lifetime. A visitor to his house in France – where the artist went to work for the French King François I in his final years – mentions them. Vasari, the great renaissance art historian, also gives a description of the painting: "The eyes were sparkling and moist as they always are in real life. Around them were reddish specks and hairs that could only be depicted with immense subtlety. The brows could not be more natural: the hair grows thickly in one place and lightly in another following the pores of the skin." With eyebrows, she would still look out from the deep, slow glazes of Leonardo's paint, but without the absolute enigma.

François is the reason that any of us can see this portrait. Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in Florence around 1503, and took it with him when he left for France 13 years later. After his death in 1519, the painting passed through several hands until François managed to buy it for today's equivalent of around £9m. When the aristocracy fell during the French revolution, the painting became part of the public collection of the Louvre. A small snag with Perruggia's patriotic defence during his trial – that his motive for stealing the Mona Lisa was not money but to return her to the motherland, avenging Napoleon's rapacious plundering of artworks from Italy – was that the Mona Lisa was never stolen from the Italians in the first place.

The Italian press may have been touched by his claim, but not the jury at his trial. Perruggia was sentenced to 12 months in 1914. Eventually he returned to France and opened a paint shop in Haute-Savoie; the Mona Lisa was given a triumphal tour of Italy before she too went back to France.

What was the true effect of this most famous of all art thefts? For one thing, immediate and intense repetition: it's the cinematic cliché of rolling presses, of tomorrow's newsprint rushing round the cylinders, carrying images of the Mona Lisa, her face becoming a global edition, and with each face a repetition of all the anecdotes about her smile, her supernatural powers and so on.

As early as the 1930s, French politicians were proposing that the Mona Lisa have her own separate gallery "because all the Cook's tours go to see it". "People came not to look at the painting," Robert Hughes has said, "but to say they that they'd seen it." From that moment, Hughes traces the pernicious rise of the hyperinflated art market. But its effect on museum culture has been devastating too. Visitors have to trek to her gallery at the Louvre and see if she's still casting her eerie spell.

If you believe in slow looking, the Mona Lisa is the last work on earth that you will ever experience in this way. You queue to see her behind a winding cordon like those at airport security, you get your brief moment, and are instantly sent on your way.

And though I cannot blame Perruggia entirely for this disaster, nor the fact that almost nobody looks at Veronese's stupendous Wedding at Cana in the same gallery, as vast as it is ignored, the theft of the Mona Lisa a century ago contributed exponentially to the painting's fame across the world, to this idea of a woman with a mysterious past, still here, haunting the present: a spectacle in a glass case.

The Picture Vanishes will be broadcast in Radio 3's Twenty Minutes series on 21 August at 7.50pm.

Read here how Goya's Duke of Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery 50 years earlier © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 28 2011

Gandharan Buddha thought looted from Kabul will be on show at the British Museum until mid-July

Gandharan Buddha will be on show at the British Museum until mid-July

An anonymous art dealer passionate about Afghan heritage has teamed up with the British Museum in an effort to buy and repatriate a spectacular antiquity believed to have been looted from the Afghan national museum in Kabul during the 1990s.

The British dealer, who said he had a "very strong emotional attachment" to Afghanistan, resolved to buy the 2nd-century Gandharan Buddha after he recognised it in a photograph sent by a colleague in Japan. The sculpture, which had disappeared in the bloody civil war, had been bought by a Japanese collector.

The British dealer, who is insisting on anonymity but spoke to the Observer about his determination to save the Buddha, said: "I begged him to give it back. He didn't care. In Japan, even if the object is stolen, you can't prosecute. So I decided to buy it."

The problem was that in Britain, purchasing stolen goods is a criminal offence, but the dealer was undeterred. He informed only the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and a curator, St John Simpson, of his plan.

"It was a big risk, but I had the [museum's] blessing," he said. "I thought that could have helped, although Customs officers don't believe in 'good faith' and there could have been serious trouble. I was doing something very moral, but illegal."

He has an enduring passion for Afghanistan, having travelled extensively there in the 1970s: "I saw the piece in Kabul then. I remember perfectly where it stood. This was my homage to their civilisation and their suffering."

Simpson, curator for ancient Iran and Arabia, said: "We had to seek legal advice. But the consensus was that, if this was the only way in which this piece could be returned, that's what we had to do. The clear public benefit outweighed the grey area."

With the museum's blessing, the dealer used his own money to persuade the Japanese collector to sell the 1.2 metre-high Buddha. Negotiations lasted a year.

Simpson described the rescue as "terribly appropriate", coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: "They're gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece."

Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as "one of our most treasured objects". One source put the sculpture's value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is "without value, given its provenance".

The Buddha, which is shown performing a miracle with flames rising from his shoulders and water pouring from his feet, will be displayed in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery from Wednesday, before it is returned to Kabul after the close of "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World". The show has proved so popular that it has been extended until 17 July.

About 75% of the Kabul museum's antiquities have been destroyed or looted. They reflected the rich heritage of a land that was once a crossroads of eastern and western ancient civilisations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 19 2010

Policeman on holiday spots stolen art treasure in window of art gallery

Two ancient statues stolen in the 1980s have been tracked down in New York and returned to Italian museums

Two ancient statues stolen in the 1980s from Italian museums are now back home, thanks in part to a police art squad expert who spotted one of them in a New York gallery while window-shopping on holiday in the United States.

The bronze statue of the Greek god Zeus and a marble female torso, both dating from the 1st century, had ended up in the hands of a dealer and a collector in New York, officials announced in Rome today.

The torso, from a small museum in Terracina, south of Rome, was on display in a Madison Avenue art gallery when Michele Speranza, a member of the Italian carabinieri art squad, strolled by on holiday last year.

"I stopped to look at the gallery window and I recognized the statue," Speranza, 38, told reporters. "I thought I had seen it among the photos in our databank of missing art," he said. He took a photo with his mobile phone and did some research when he returned to Rome.

"The statue had been given up for lost after being stolen in 1988," said general Pasquale Muggeo, head of the carabinieri art division.

The bronze and the torso are each valued at $680,000 (£425,000), authorities said.

The Zeus was stolen from the National Museum in Rome near the capital's main train station in 1980, and was tracked to a New York collector after a photo of it appeared in a Sotheby's auction catalogue in 2006. The art squad regularly studies catalogues of major auction houses.

No arrests have been made over either theft. Authorities said the people who owned the statues were unaware they had been illegally obtained.

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May 20 2010

Paris art theft carried out by lone robber

Missing works may be worth up to €500m, with paintings by Picasso and Matisse among stellar haul

In pictures: the stolen paintings

In the dead of Wednesday night, as the Eiffel Tower cast its golden beam from across the Seine, a man emerged from the shadows to break into the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Dressed in black and with a mask covering his face, he cut a padlock on the gate and smashed a window to get inside. Once there, he set to work.

By the time museum guards noticed something amiss, shortly before 7am, the lone thief was long gone – and with him a stunningly valuable haul of artworks worth hundreds of millions of euros.

Today, as French police began their effort to find both the robber and the loot, the break-in at the museum in western Paris was being described as one of the biggest art heists in recent history.

Five paintings, including Pablo Picasso's Le Pigeon aux Petits-Pois and La Pastorale by Henri Matisse, were taken from the galley's permanent collection, located in one of the richest parts of the capital, just south of the Champs-Elysées.

Those two works alone are estimated as being worth €23m (£20m) and €15m (£13m) respectively, and, while the museum itself has suggested that the stolen paintings are worth about €100m (£86m), the Paris prosecutor's office has said the total value could be five times as much.

"This is a serious attack on the heritage of humanity," said Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris city hall, standing on the steps of the museum amid a swarm of television cameras. Listing works by Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernard Léger, Bertrand Delanoe, the city's mayor, urged that everything be done "to recover these masterpieces".

Girard said it remained unclear whether the thief, who removed the paintings from their frames and rolled them up to so that they could be carried away easily, had been acting alone or with a team.

Sources pointed out that if the thief had had people waiting for him, he would have been able to make a speedy getaway, thanks to the museum's proximity to the fast-moving traffic of roads running along the side of the Seine.

What rapidly became clear after the theft was that the museum's security system had failed catastrophically. Although the intruder was caught on camera by the CCTV network, the break-in triggered no alarm. The three watchmen on night duty had "seen nothing and therefore did not react" until they noticed the broken window at 6.50am, said Girard.

Heaping further embarrassment on the museum, Delanoe's office confirmed tonight that a "technical malfunction" had been detected in the alarm system – and that, although it had first been reported on 30 March, it had not been fixed adequately.

The mayor said he had ordered an administrative inquiry to establish whether "technical or human deficiencies" contributed to the theft.

The BRB, the organised crime unit of the Parisian police, has been put in charge of the investigation, which today saw officers cordon off the scene of the crime as they searched for clues. And, as the prestigious modern art museum struggled to come to terms with the audacious heist, speculation mounted about the motivations of the thief or thieves.

"Every time this happens, we wonder why they do it, because it is so difficult for them to sell [the paintings]," said Stéphane Thefo, a specialist in stolen art at Interpol, the global police body based in Lyon.

He said the instigators of big art thefts often panicked after realising how incriminating it was to have such famous and expensive works in their possession. "They have works on their hands that are burning their fingers," he said. "Can you imagine carrying a Picasso around?"

Of the various hypotheses swirling around the tree-lined boulevards of the chic western 16th arrondissement, the most headline-grabbing was that of a "made-to-order" theft for an unknown collector.

However, Thefo said he believed that was unlikely. "Experience has shown that the theory of a private collector is usually fantasy," he said.

Jean-Marie Baron, an art critic, said it was possible that the thieves were seeking to exploit sale opportunities in parts of the world which were less likely to snub stolen goods. Some commentators hinted at darker motives, pointing out that art thefts committed from the inside are not unheard of.

"It will be interesting to find out how much the paintings are insured for: if they were not properly insured, it would be a very bad surprise for the museum," said Baron.

Today, as the museum's ornate bronze doors remained firmly shut and written notices informed visitors that "technical reasons" were to blame, the sense of disbelief was palpable among the institution's staff and devotees. Patricia Schneider, a New Yorker on holiday in Paris, who said she had been to the museum many times, said she was "a little stunned and shocked".

"It feels intrusive when any great art work is stolen," she said. Her mother, Mimi, added: "That it can happen in this day and age, with all the security measures that are taken, is appalling." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Picasso masterpieces stolen in Paris

Paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Leger stolen from Paris Museum of Modern Art

Five paintings worth €500m (£430m) – including masterpieces by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – have been stolen from a Paris museum, French police said today.

A police spokesman said works by Picasso, Matisse, George Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger were reported missing early this morning from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

The pictures are: Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois by Picasso; La Pastorale by Matisse; L'Olivier Près de l'Estaque by Braque; La Femme a l'Eventail by Modigliani, and Nature Morte aux Chandeliers by Léger.

The burglary was discovered just before 7am. A window had been broken and the padlock of a grille giving access to the museum was smashed. CCTV footage showed a person climbing in through a window.

Police and investigators have cordoned off the museum, which is in the 16th arrondisement, across the river Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

Le Monde reported that the paintings were so well-known that it would be difficult to sell them on the open market. Previous thefts have involved paintings being stolen to order on behalf of private collectors.

A member of staff at the museum said questions about the theft would only be answered by the office of the Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoe.

The theft is being investigated by the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, France's elite police armed robbery unit.

Last December, thieves stole a pastel by Edgar Degas worth €800,000 from an exhibition in Marseille. The work, Les Choristes (The Chorus), was discovered to be missing from the Musée Cantini by a security guard when he opened up. The work, on loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for the exhibition, had been stolen overnight. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 27 2010

Auction withdraws 'stolen' Roman sculptures

Bonhams auction house acts after claims that second century AD artefacts were taken during illegal excavations

Four Roman sculptures are to be withdrawn from auction tomorrow amid claims that they were stolen from archaeological sites overseas.

Photographs seized by police suggested that the sculptures – funerary busts and a marble statue of a youth from the second century AD – were illicitly excavated, archaeologists told the Guardian.

A spokesman for Bonhams auctioneers said: "Whenever a serious question is raised about an item's provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance."

Dr David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said that the four antiquities bore soil traces that indicated they were excavated during illegal digs. Images in the Bonhams auction catalogue show the same sculptures cleaned and restored.

Archaeologists remain concerned about illegal trading of antiquities and some believe insufficient checks are carried out into their provenance.

Lord Renfrew, the eminent Cambridge archaeologist, warned that "such sales are maintaining London's reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities".

Gill said the withdrawal was the latest in a series of such incidents in London.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a researcher at Cambridge University and formerly an archaeologist with the Greek ministry of culture, uncovered the evidence suggesting that the sculptures had been illegally excavated. They had been moderately valued, at about £40,000, but he is concerned about the impact of illicit excavations.

He said: "The destruction leaves objects out of context. Even if [an object] is a masterpiece, our duty is to give people history." It is a view shared by most archaeologists.

Since 2003, it has been a criminal offence to deal in "tainted cultural objects", punishable by up to seven years in prison. Renfrew called for auction houses to identify the vendors of antiquities. "That would be a step towards clarifying the problem," he said.

The style of the Roman busts suggests they are of eastern Mediterranean origin and were possibly dug up in Syria or northern Greece. The marble statue probably originates from Italy, archaeologists said.

The Bonhams spokesman said that the firm sends its catalogues for scrutiny to the Art Loss Register – a computerised database – to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold. "If they raise issues, we also withdraw items," he said.However, Dr Gill said that the Art Loss Register only dealt with stolen items, and not antiquities that may have come from illegal excavations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 21 2010

Five cleared of extortion over Da Vinci painting

Jury issues not proven verdicts against two accused and not guilty for the other three after eight-week trial

Five men accused of trying to extort £4.25m from one of Britain's richest peers for the return of a stolen Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece have all walked free after an eight-week trial.

The jury at the high court in Edinburgh decided today that the prosecution had failed to prove that the three solicitors and two private detectives were guilty of a complex conspiracy targeting the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the country's most senior peers. The five were accused of threatening to destroy Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a Da Vinci painting that was insured for £15m but unofficially valued at £30m to £50m – unless the duke paid them £4.25m for its return.

The jury said the charges against Marshall Ronald, 53, a solicitor from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and Robert Graham, 57, a private detective from Ormskirk, Lancashire, were not proven – the Scottish verdict that stops short of declaring someone not guilty. After deliberating for two days the jury also decided that Graham's partner, John Doyle, 61, also from Ormskirk, and two senior commercial lawyers from Scotland, Calum Jones, 45, from Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, and David Boyce, 63, from Airdrie, Lanarkshire, were not guilty of the charges.

Doyle, Graham and Ronald were jubilant. They insisted they had been honestly trying to broker the return of the 500-year-old painting – one of only two Da Vinci paintings in private hands – in return for what they believed was a fair reward. They accused two undercover police officers who posed as the duke's agents of deliberately conning them into believing their offer had been accepted.

The prosecution alleged that all five men were guilty of an elaborate extortion attempt: they had repeatedly refused to alert the police that they knew how to recover the stolen painting, and had threatened that "volatile" individuals would destroy the Da Vinci unless their ransom demands were met.

After leaving court, Doyle and Graham insisted that they were still entitled to a reward. Doyle said: "What we did was to bring back a culturally significant masterpiece, which is something neither the police nor the insurers could do. We brought it back and we have been through two and a half years of hell since."

The painting was stolen in August 2003 from Drumlanrig castle in Dumfriesshire in broad daylight by two axe-wielding men who had threatened and overpowered an 18-year-old tourist guide and then escaped through the castle grounds.

The painting was the most valuable single artwork stolen in Britain. The investigation into its disappearance went worldwide. The FBI put the painting on its 10 most wanted list. Neither of the thieves has been caught. Dumfries and Galloway police confirmed today that the theft "remains a live investigation".

The then duke, John Montagu Douglas Scott, an avid art collector, was described as being distraught at the theft of a treasured family heirloom. He died a month before it was recovered, in a raid by police in October 2007 on the offices of a law firm in central Glasgow where Jones and Boyce worked at the time.

Ronald told the court that recovering the painting, which was being held by a shadowy gang linked to Liverpool's underworld, had become a "personal crusade".

Ronald still faces being struck off as a lawyer after he admitted stealing £350,000 from his clients' accounts to buy the painting from the gangsters holding it. His one-man firm, run from the converted garage of his home, has been closed down by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and his case is now expected to be heard by the solicitors' complaints tribunal. The two Scottish solicitors, Jones and Boyce, refused to comment. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 12 2010

Where next for Iraqi art?

We know about the devastation and looting – but what impact has war had on Iraq's artistic heritage? Seven years after the invasion, Hadani Ditmars returns to Baghdad to find out

We hear plenty about the horror of Iraq. There are bombs in market places, at hotels and official buildings. There are sectarian rifts, dozens of militias and politicians who claim to be fighting terror yet who have their own private armies. Fifty-three billion dollars has been spent on post-invasion aid, and yet 40% of Iraqis are without drinking water. Iraq is currently ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

Freedom isn't, perhaps, the first word that springs to mind when you think about Iraq. But it is the word used by Haydar Daffar, an Iraqi film-maker in his late 30s, whose 2005 documentary The Dreams of Sparrows recounts the chaos and tragedy of post-invasion Iraq through the eyes of its artists. He supports himself – like film-makers everywhere – by making commercials. "There is freedom here today," he smiles when I meet him on a late February afternoon at the Hewar Gallery, one of the beleaguered city of Waziriya's remaining few. "Freedom of expression and freedom to kill."

I returned to Iraq after seven years away, a few days before last weekend's election. The last time I was here, it was in the wake of the 2003 invasion; I was researching my book Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Now I'm here as a co-editor at New Internationalist planning our May issue on Iraq. As gangs of journalists in full body armour roam the streets of Baghdad looking for stories on the election, I'm on a different mission entirely: to find signs of cultural life in a place that was once called the City of Peace.

As Daffar and I drive through Baghdad's toxic traffic in our beaten-up old car – it can now take two hours to cross town, if you don't die of exhaust inhalation en route – he tells me his story. He was threatened by both Sunni and Shia militias and forced to flee. He's not sure why, but suspects it's because The Dreams of Sparrows contained references to Baghdad's thriving underground drinking culture (one that he thoroughly enjoys, he lets slip). Admittedly, that was back in the bad old days of sectarian militia terror – days that, depending on who you ask, lasted anywhere from 2004 until very recently.

As we drive past a plethora of election posters depicting candidates promising peace, prosperity and even national unity, those ideas seem very far away. Pistols with silencers are big these days in Baghdad, as are mortar rounds lobbed at the green zone, car bombs and police violence. A whole family was recently beheaded here by an unknown hit squad, and a university professor gunned down in the street.

But at an old Ottoman villa on the banks of the Tigris – apparently once inhabited by Gertrude Bell, who was here with TE Lawrence in the 1920s and, amazing as it sounds, helped draw up the borders of present-day Iraq – I encounter a parallel world. The building has recently been converted into a theatre, and a group of young actors and dancers are rehearsing for a new play – a fusion of dance, drama and film – about Iraqi poet Mudaffer al-Nawab. Imprisoned after the 1963 CIA-backed Ba'athist coup, al Nawab, a communist writer, now makes strident statements against both American occupation and the Iraqi government from his home in Syria. The play's choreography carries echoes of the jazzy yet balletic style of diva Twyla Tharp, as well as break dancing, and even the Iraqi folk circle dance called chobi.

Their enthusiasm is so infectious that I put down my notebook and join in. Afterwards, I get talking to the cast. A 21-year-old from a poor Shia neighbourhood says that he was threatened by Mahdi militia a few years ago for "having long hair" and "being an actor", but that now the situation has improved. One of his colleagues, an 18-year-old named Ali from the same neighbourhood, who does a mean moonwalk, tells me that his father was killed by Saddam Hussein for belonging to the Dawa party. He says his two brothers – both religious – disapprove of his theatre work, but his mother comes to all his performances.

Another actor, Bushra Ismail, is a veteran of the Iraqi theatre scene and recently won the award for best Arab actress in Cairo. "Under Saddam we suffered from censorship," she recounts, "but now it's the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There are a whole new set of red lines that we can't cross." Still, everyone is excited about opening night.

In the nearby neighbourhood of Karradeh, the National Theatre (a once-grand, now slightly derelict building, built during the Iran–Iraq war) is closed for restoration when I visit. Now surrounded by colourful election posters, the theatre began evening performances again at the end of 2008 (safer daytime performances were the norm following the invasion).

The National's information director Nabeel Taher, a serious-looking man in his 40s, tells me that although there is still insufficient arts funding from the government, he feels hopeful about the future of Iraqi culture. "We feel much freer than before," he says, citing a recent political satire by Iraqi playwright–director Haider Monather that lampooned the then head of parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. "[Al-Mashhadani] sent the actors flowers and a congratulatory card," he explains. Such a thing would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

The theatre, which under the Ba'ath party provided much-needed relief from the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam, met with hardships after the 2003 invasion. It was bombed twice in 2008; the first time during a production of an anti-militia play, and the second when the organisation's celebrations for International Theatre Day 2008 clashed with a huge anti-occupation demonstration lead by Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr just across the street.

"Some militiamen crossed over and threatened to hang us from a pole unless we stopped our celebrations," says Taher. "But I tried to reason with them, saying: 'Look, we are just artists, not politicians, and we are all Iraqis after all.'" The result was a National Theatre-sponsored play about the life of the Shia Imam Hossein, produced on location in Sadr City with a mixture of professionals and local amateurs – including a few militia. One even left the army to become an actor, Taher reveals, but won't talk to us about it because he doesn't want to dwell on his past.

Dwelling on the past is a big deal at the Iraq Museum in Karkh, an area of Baghdad that shares borders with an old quarter of the city and is now a tough innercity neighbourhood. The museum was famously looted after the invasion – as US tanks stood by – although several of the artefacts stolen were allegedly part of an inside job. It officially re-opened last year after extensive repairs and renovations, with at least half of the objects yet to be found.

Making my way past security checkpoints flying Shia banners, I meet up with Muwafaq al-Taei, an architect and town planner who was both lionised and terrorised by the old regime. He was the designer of some of Saddam's more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist. He walks with a limp after being shot by US forces a few years ago while working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the south. Now 68, he possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for his country's heritage.

As it turns out, Taei is to be my guide around the museum – valiantly stepping in when the official curator refuses to do the job without a $500 fee. What follows is a fascinating two-hour lecture on Iraqi history, from the Babylonian queen Semiramis, who successfully dammed the Euphrates for both irrigation and defence purposes, through to caliphs who made deals with various sects and factions to stay in power. "You have to understand the past to make sense of the present," Taei says.

Sadly, the glories of Iraq's civilisation are displayed for a lonely few. Any hopes of a surge in cultural tourism have been quashed by the precarious security situation. There are far more people working at the museum – including a swarm of middle-age men smoking and chatting in the lobby – than there are visitors.

Later, Taei takes me to Sheikh Ma'rouf, a tough neighbourhood only 500 metres from the museum, to see the tomb of Zumurrud Khatun, a caliph's wife. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style Abbasid architecture should be, by rights, a Unesco world heritage site. Instead, it lies derelict in a neighbourhood full of guns and garbage. When the keeper of the tomb makes threatening noises, Taei saves the day through sheer charm.

Iraqis always seem to find a way of rising to the occasion. The next day, as I made my way through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport (the same day that bombs ripped through Baquba), the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed a triumphant concert of Beethoven and Brahms at the Institute of Fine Arts in the Mansour neighbourhood, attended by several hundred people, mainly students and families. An excited young music student Skyped me. "It was amazing," he said. "It made me feel proud to be Iraqi."

• Hadani Ditmars is an editor at New Internationalist and the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone. She was in Baghdad researching the May issue of NI on Iraq, seven years after the invasion. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 01 2010

Pay £4m or the Leonardo gets it

• Five on trial over threat to destroy £50m masterpiece
• Theft from duke's castle remains Britain's biggest

A solicitor has been accused along with four other men of threatening to destroy a stolen Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece unless they were paid £4.25m, in a conspiracy allegedly hatched in the offices of one of Glasgow's leading law firms.

Marshall Ronald, 53, a lawyer from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, has gone on trial for allegedly helping to organise a plot to extort the money from the Duke of Buccleuch for the safe return of Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder.

The high court in Edinburgh was told today that the conspiracy was organised with the help of two co-accused from Glasgow and two other men from Ormskirk, Lancashire.

The five alleged conspirators are accused of trying to extort £4.25m from the duke and his son Richard, the 10th and current duke, by "menacing them" and "putting them in a state of fear and alarm and apprehension" that the painting would be damaged or destroyed if the ransom was not paid.

Valued at £30m to £50m, the painting was the centrepiece of the then duke's collection at Drumlanrig castle, near Dumfries, reputed to be the UK's most valuable collection in private hands, when it was stolen in August 2003 in a daylight robbery. The heist remains the UK's biggest art theft.

The painting was recovered in October 2007 after police raided the offices of the law firm, HBJ Gateley Wareing, in Glasgow. The duke, a keen fine art collector, had died aged 83 a month before it was recovered.

The court was told that the two alleged thieves, not among the five men on trial, had threatened to kill a young tour guide and brandished an axe at other staff when they took the painting from its protective case.

The casually-dressed men had been posing as tourists, and escaped through a window at Drumlanrig castle, the ancestral home of the dukes of Buccleuch, carrying the Leonardo under their arms.

Alison Russell, then an 18-year-old who had just begun her first season as a tour guide, told the court the two men were the first visitors to arrive at the gallery housing the painting, immediately after the castle opened one morning in late August 2003.They had ignored all the castle's other galleries and her attempt to describe the collection.

Then, she told the court, one of the thieves "put his hand over my mouth and told me I had to lie down on the ground or he would kill me if I didn't".

Sarah Skene, 73, another tour guide, said she heard "a commotion" in the staircase hall housing the painting, and heard a male colleague shouting "please don't do it. Retreat, retreat."

She came in and saw one of the thieves wielding the axe. "He was standing guard on the picture," she said. "After it was done, they disappeared out of the window."

The jury was shown two CCTV images showing the thieves: a thick-set man wearing a white sunhat and a gilet-style waistcoat, and a slimmer man with a baseball cap and dark-coloured casual jacket. Both men walked under the CCTV camera with their faces obscured by their hats.

Currently in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh on temporary loan, the painting, which measures 20in x 14in, shows the Madonna with the infant Jesus and the cross-shaped yarnwinder, a symbol of Christ's crucifixion.

The prosecution claims that in July 2007, nearly four years after the theft, Ronald, the solicitor, had contacted the duke's insurers and their loss adjusters and claimed he could arrange for the painting's return. He allegedly told two undercover police officers posing as the duke's representatives that "volatile individuals" were involved who would "do something very silly" if the police were informed.

Between 10 August 2007 and 4 October 2007, Ronald repeatedly asked the detectives to pay £2m into his own solicitor's firm's account and another £2.25m into a Swiss bank account, the charges said.

During those weeks, Ronald and two co-defendants, Calum Jones, 45, and David Boyce, 63, drafted an agreement at the offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing to organise the safe return of the Leonardo, once the £2m had been paid to Ronald's firm.

The charges allege that in late September and early October 2007, Ronald embezzled £500,000 from his clients' accounts and arranged to take possession of the painting, from persons unknown.

On 29 September, Ronald bought acid-free paper and a folio case, allegedly to transport the painting. Four days later, he allegedly paid £350,000 to another of his co-accused, a builder from Ormskirk called Robert Graham, 57, for the painting.

With the last defendant, John Doyle, 61, also from Ormskirk, Ronald and Graham allegedly took possession of the stolen painting – an offence similar to receiving stolen goods known as "reset" in Scots law – and then took it to Jones and Boyce at their offices in Glasgow.

On 4 October, they allegedly showed the paintings to the two undercover detectives, who were known to them as David Restor and John Craig, demanding a total of £4.25m payable in two large sums for its safe return.

The trial continues and is expected to last for up to six weeks. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 31 2009

Degas pastel disappears

Thieves who stole a pastel by Edgar Degas from an exhibition in Marseille left no sign of having broken in, police said. Les Choristes (The Chorus), which has an estimated value of €800,000 (£710,000), was discovered to be missing from the Musée Cantini by a security guard when he opened up. The work, on loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for an exhibition due to end on Sunday, had been stolen overnight. Investigators have not ruled out a "complicit insider", according to Jacques Dallest, leading the investigation. The work, created between 1876 and 1877, measures 27cm by 32cm. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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