missing masterpieces and a tale made for Hollywood

Every once in a while, a documentary with an unpromising title turns out to be a cracker. So it was with Stolen: catch the art thieves (BBC Two), which played out like a glossy thriller.

It was the story of a 1994 burglary at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Germany. The targets were two paintings by JMW Turner – Light and Color and Shadow and Darkness (and a third work by Caspar David Friedrich, but the program was not about that one). A thief hid in the museum until nightfall, then opened the door and let in an accomplice; they tied up the only guard on duty and escaped with the paints in a white Ford Transit van. Isn’t it still a white Ford Transit van?

The Turners were on loan from the Tate, and what followed was a thoroughly gripping story of the Tate’s efforts to get them back. The cast of characters could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie, including Rocky, a “tough-ass” undercover agent for Scotland Yard whose behavior made it very easy for him to pass himself off as a European criminal. “He wasn’t unruly,” said Sandy Nairne, the debonair former assistant manager of the Tate, “but he had his own ways of working.”

Nairne’s role in this saga was something. Just as happens in the films, he was contacted by telephone by a man who claimed to have the paintings and ordered him to attend a meeting at Paddington station. A Metropolitan Police officer came to Nairne’s place, while Nairne clung to his office window to make phone calls look like he was on his way. The man turned out to be a chancellor rather than a criminal mastermind: his disguise was a garbage bag with two eye holes.

I won’t spoil the rest for you if you haven’t seen it, but also in the mix was a Yugoslav crime boss, a colorful lawyer, a clandestine meeting in a forest, and a disgruntled Rocky who was leaving to sail his yacht around New Zealand. The film was helped immensely by his access to phone records and footage from the time. It may have been “artnapping” rather than a kidnapping, but the stakes were high and the methods of investigation similar – down to a request for “proof of life”, which in this case meant Polaroids of the paintings, rather than a kidnap victim holding up a copy of today’s newspaper.

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