Art theft

Sandy Nairne and his life as an undercover negotiator: The ethics of retrieving Tate's Turners

The National Portrait Gallery director had a sensitive, secret role in recovering the stolen paintings


For more than eight years Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery and former programme director at the Tate, led a secret life, negotiating the recovery of two Tate paintings stolen while on loan to an exhibition in Frankfurt. Nairne successfully coordinated the extrication of the masterpieces, by JMW Turner and worth over £30m, from a criminal network in Germany.

Surely museum curators lack the training, experience or even the personality to lead a cloak-and-dagger operation in the underworld? Nairne disagrees.

“I was thrown into a situation I knew nothing about. But it was an extreme example of what we do as curators. In museums, we deal with very high value material. We need to be incredibly discreet about those who offer us loans. The mix of working with artists, dealers and collectors can sometimes be pretty complex. Negotiation is a key skill,” he explains.

Nairne is publishing his account in a book entitled Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners. It is extremely unusual (perhaps unprecedented) for a museum director to write in such detail about a theft, and “security” is the one issue which museums normally refuse to discuss. Nairne’s book (which he could only write with the approval of the Tate) is therefore likely to generate considerable interest. He spoke with The Art Newspaper about his experiences—and the wider implications of the theft.

The story began on 29 July 1994 when Nairne was awoken by a very early phone call from his boss, the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, asking him to rush to the office with his passport. A few hours earlier Turner’s paintings Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour (both 1843) had been stolen from Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, where they had been on loan in an exhibition on “Goethe and the Visual Arts”. The burglary had been a “stay-behind”, with the three thieves remaining in the gallery after closing time. Along with the two Turners, Caspar David Friedrich’s Waft of Mist (around 1819), on loan from the Hamburg Kunsthalle, was also seized.

The Turners were insured and £24m, the 1994 valuation, was paid to the Tate. Lloyds’ insurers, headed by Hiscox, quickly offered a reward of $250,000, with their loss adjuster Mark Dalrymple (of Tyler and Co) liaising with the German police. Nairne’s initial role was to be the Tate’s main point of contact. Although continuing in his normal work, he had to keep developments secret from his colleagues, while taking sensitive phone calls and shuttling between London and Frankfurt (he also had to arrange for an undercover detective to impersonate Tate curator Andrew Wilton).

In 1998 the Tate made a deal with the insurers. The gallery paid £8m to buy back legal title to the paintings, using funds from the earlier insurance payout. This was done on the assumption that the Turners would eventually come to light, even if it took decades. However, it meant that the insurers ended their involvement, so the Tate—and Nairne in particular—then had to take over the primary responsibility for the recovery. Nairne continued to be assisted by Dalrymple, as well as two Scotland Yard detectives, Jurek Rokoszynski (known as “Rocky”, he later left the police and was employed privately by the Tate) and Mick Lawrence.

Three men (Yusef Turk, Stephen Peter Weiss and Stefan Harald Hoffler) were convicted of the theft in 1999, but they no longer held the paintings. Nairne assumes they were paid for the theft, and having passed the paintings to those who had commissioned them, had no idea what had subsequently happened to them.

Frankfurt lawyer

Nairne’s book emphasises that the key to the operation was a Frankfurt lawyer, Edgar Liebrucks, who appeared to be in contact with whoever then held the paintings. In July 1999 he 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. This money would be handed on to his underworld contacts.

The key authorities, the German prosecutor’s office and the Metropolitan Police, authorised the payment. UK legal authority was given in a secret High Court hearing under judge Sir Francis Ferris on 28 April 2000 (his sub judice judgment was subsequently released in 2005). The two paintings were handed over in separate operations, with the first coming back after a year of difficult negotiations.

On 19 July 2000, in Liebrucks’ Frankfurt apartment, Nairne was handed Shade and Darkness after arranging a payment of DM5m. The painting was immediately taken to the prosecutor’s office, where it was stored overnight in a cabinet which normally housed seized pornographic videos. The next day it was returned to London, where it was taken to a commercial store, so that its recovery could remain a secret. Only two of the Tate’s trustees were informed.

A few months later, however, the crime correspondent of the Mail on Sunday newspaper claimed to have heard rumours about the recovery. Nairne reveals that in November 2000 the Tate’s press office, with Nicholas Serota’s approval, issued a statement to the newspaper, saying that “currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions”.

This was simply untrue. The new information was that the first Turner had recently been recovered. And there were indeed current discussions, since Nairne was in contact with Liebrucks to recover the second painting. Nairne believes this statement was necessary to avoid further complications over the recovery of the second Turner, and he says that it was made with the knowledge of Scotland Yard.

Although negotiations continued with Liebrucks, progress proved slow. Two sensitive issues arose in the autumn of 2002, when prospects of a recovery appeared to be receding.

The first was an internal discussion between Serota and Nairne on whether the return of the first Turner should be announced, in the hope that this would bring out new informants. By this time Nairne favoured a change in tack, believing that “we were not going to get the Turner back through the present methods”. Serota, who “did not like this idea”, prevailed and it turned out that his instinct was probably correct.

The second issue was Nairne’s own position. Following his earlier failure to get the job of director of Tate Modern, he was appointed head of the National Portrait Gallery in 2002. Despite his departure, he was keen to continue to lead the recovery effort, having developed a working relationship with Liebrucks. However, Tate chairman David Verey said to him: “Sandy, you’ve really got to hand this over to others at [the] Tate.” Verey’s idea was that deputy director Alex Beard should take sole charge. “Although I had total confidence in Alex, it felt a bit like a kick in the backside,” Nairne recalls in his book.

Shortly afterwards, however, an unusual arrangement was made between Nairne and the Tate for him to continue to lead the case, reporting to Beard on an unpaid basis.


Altogether, between July 2000 and December 2002, there were five attempts to finalise a deal but in all cases negotiations broke down. There was then a breakthrough. On 16 December, Nairne caught an early flight to Frankfurt and headed to the Sheraton Arabella Hotel, the regular meeting place with Liebrucks. Early that afternoon Rocky occupied Room 210, and at 2.30pm Liebrucks entered with a blue cloth bag, containing Light and Colour. The painting was removed and laid out flat on hotel towels placed on a side-table. Tate conservator Roy Perry thoroughly inspected the painting and confirmed to Nairne that it was the original. Rocky and Liebrucks headed to the bank, where the Tate’s cash was released to the Frankfurt lawyer.

The recovery of the two Turners was announced on 20 December 2002, four days after the second recovery. Liebrucks had been the key intermediary with those holding the Turners, but Nairne skirts over the lawyer’s motives for becoming actively involved in this delicate and potentially dangerous affair. He was paid a separate, undisclosed professional fee by the Tate. The total cost to the Tate, in addition to the recovery payment, was £300,000, but this also had to cover the professional fees and expenses of all those who assisted in the operation.

What happened next in Frankfurt remains unclear. Before the recovery the Frankfurt prosecutor had told Scotland Yard that he “would make every effort to recover the monies by tracing and prosecuting offenders”. Although Liebrucks had been granted immunity, those who received the DM10m were not. We know nothing about the mechanism whereby Liebrucks passed on the money, but the German police appear to have failed to discover who received it.

Nairne was elated with the recovery of the second Turner, eight years and 145 days after the theft. Although his first priority had been the safety of the paintings, he needed to ensure that he and his colleagues did not put themselves in vulnerable situations. He told us last month that “it was impossible to feel relaxed when in Frankfurt, although it was part of my job to appear to be so.”

The Friedrich landscape still remained in unknown hands. Nairne’s book suggests that, surprisingly, there was little contact between those seeking the London and Hamburg paintings. However, after the Tate pictures were returned, negotiations through Liebrucks proved successful in recovering the Friedrich landscape. It was returned in August 2003, with ownership resting with its insurers. Although the Kunsthalle had already spent the insurance payout, funds were raised to buy it back.

Initially, Nairne planned to write his book as catharsis but, he says: “I then realised that wasn’t sufficient motivation.” The book changed, and in addition to the first part, his personal account of the Turner recovery, he added a second, putting the story into a wider context.

He goes on to examine other recent thefts of high value museum masterpieces, raising questions of motivation and surrounding ethical issues. He is particularly anxious to cut through the mythology behind much writing on art crime. These myths, such as that of the “gentleman thief”, do not help when addressing the problems, such as the link between art theft and drugs.

How did the Turner saga change him? “It got me more interested in the wider questions that relate to thefts from museums. You become more wary, and I do think about security a lot. Museums have security specialists, but as a director my role is to ask very quizzy questions.”

Sandy Nairne, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners, Reaktion Books, 21 August, £20

The payments: did the deal put other museums at risk?

The most difficult ethical question is whether the £3.2m payment for the recovery of the two Turners was right from the Tate’s perspective—but damaging for the wider museum world. News of the payment (not always reported in the media with quite the precision of the Tate’s statements) could have encouraged further high value thefts from museums. Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the Art Loss Register, is among those who remain concerned. He told us: “The size of the payment was excessive and has prejudiced other recovery operations. It is impossible to prove that it encouraged more theft, but it certainly did not discourage it.” Theft of museum masterpieces has not fallen (Nairne’s book deals briefly with the loss of five paintings at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris on 19 May 2010), and some specialists feel it has been on the rise in recent years.

The Art Newspaper: What was the money: a ransom, buyback, reward or simply a payment?

Sandy Nairne: It was not a ransom, because the Tate received no threat to destroy the paintings. It was not a buyback, because there was no promise not to seek prosecutions, and it was fully supervised by the police. The Frankfurt payment was not a reward, since the earlier $250,000 reward was a general offer open to anyone (subject to the usual conditions). The paintings were obtained through a special fee for information leading to recovery.

Who did the £3.2m go to?

I don’t know. Whoever it went to, it was not the people who had stolen the Turners or organised the theft. All I needed to know was that we had the authority to pay the money to the German lawyer. It was authorised by the High Court in London. The prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt decided that it was in the public interest and they granted immunity to Liebrucks. In the UK, we had approval from the Metropolitan Police, the Attorney General, the Treasury Solicitors, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Charity Commission.

Surely those who received the payment might have been guilty of dishonestly handling the stolen Turners?

The people would be guilty if they had grounds to believe that the paintings had been stolen.

Those holding the Turners must have realised that they were extremely valuable and it was highly likely that they had been stolen?

We simply don’t know what they knew. I was never in touch with them directly.

Did the Frankfurt police investigate who had received the money from Liebrucks?

I presume so.

The payment was fully successful in recovering the Turners, but might it have encouraged future thefts from museums?

The payment of fees was not wrong, far from it. Fees can only be paid in very controlled circumstances. It is a way of bringing back pictures for the public benefit. I would argue that it offers hope in long-running cases, possibly even the 1990 Gardner Museum theft in Boston.

The windfall: how the Tate’s loss turned to gain

One of the most astonishing aspects of the Turner story is that the Tate eventually got back more money than the initial value of the insurance payout, plus the paintings (now probably worth over £50m). The 1994 insurance payout was £24m. Four years later legal title was bought back for £8m. The Tate’s other outgoing was the recovery: two payments totalling £3.2m which went via Liebrucks and £300,000 in fees and expenses. Total outgoings were therefore £11.5m, which left £12.5m. However, this increased because of interest and investment income. Initially, £7m was allocated to buy the freehold of the Tate’s art storage facility. A further £2.8m was later used to help fund three major acquisitions: Reynolds’ The Archers, 1769 (£300,000 in 2005), Turner’s The Blue Rigi, 1842 (£1.5m in 2007), and Rubens’ oil sketch The Apotheosis of King James I, around 1629 (£1m in 2008). As of April 2010, the account with the remaining insurance payout funds had risen to £17.2m, after these outgoings. The three components (£7m for the store, £2.8m for acquisitions and the £17.2m remaining) total £27m, more than the original £24m payout. The remaining £17.2m is kept in what the Tate designates its Collection Fund. Initially the money was regarded as part of the Turner bequest, but following Charity Commission approval, Tate trustees are free to use it for the collection as a whole. A sum of £10m is allocated for acquisitions, with the remainder used to care for the collection and for scholarship.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'My life as an undercover negotiator'