In 1994, during the exhibition “Goethe and the Visual Arts” at the Frankfurt Schirn Kunsthalle two Turner paintings “Shadows and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” on loan from the Tate Gallery were stolen. Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery and former programme director at the Tate, was negotiating undercover for eight years the recovery of the masterpieces by JMW Turner and worth over £30m from a criminal network in Germany. He has now published the story of the return of the two paintings.
Nairne describes how negotiation started when the key person - the Frankfurt lawyer Edgar Liebrucks - appeared to be in contact with the possessor of the paintings. Although Yusef Turk, Stephen Peter Weiss and Stefan Harald Hoffler were convicted of the theft in 1999 the paintings meanwhile had gone elsewhere. So Liebrucks had offered to secure the recovery of the two paintings for a payment of DM10m (then £3.2m), or roughly 10% of the then open market value. The key authorities, the German prosecutor’s office and the Metropolitan Police, authorised the payment and the paintings were handed over after difficult and lengthy negotiations. The conclusion: To Liebrucks was granted immunity and it remains unclear whether the money paid to the criminals was recovered by the authorities or not.
The book examines other recent thefts of high value museum masterpieces, raising questions of motivation and surrounding ethical issues.
Sandy Nairne, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners, Reaktion Books, 21 August, £20