Working with Art Detective Charley Hill

Last April I sent Charley Hill my CV and cover letter suggesting he hire me as his summer unpaid intern. Within an hour I had my reply – a resounding yes. He happened to have several documents he urgently needed translated from English into Italian and as I speak Italian I was the perfect person for the job. ‘I should call you Nathaniel’, he wrote back referring to the angel. My timing couldn’t have been better.

It’s amazing how much you can learn in a short space of time. When I wrote to Charley I knew as much about art crime as most people: bugger all. Sure I’d seen The Thomas Crown Affair and was aware that Edward Munch’s The Scream had been stolen at some point and OK, I have a quiet fascination for fakes and forgeries mainly due to the pile I’ve unwittingly amassed over years of trawling through eBay and local auction houses in search of the needle in the haystack Philip Mould style, but that’s about as much as I knew.

Still, that’s not to say I’m a total newbie to the art world. I’m not. I’ve been weaving in and out of it for years, working for various art institutions and cavorting around London’s incredibly colourful art scene. In fact, having returned from teaching English in Kazakhstan, I half toyed with the idea of donning the Art Representative cap which is what led me to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art open day. At the reception afterwards, I asked David Bellingham, who runs the Art Business courses, if they cover fakes and forgeries. ‘They do,’ he said, and that the famous art detective Charles Hill lectures on them. That’s the first I’d heard of Charley Hill.

There’s a ton of material about Charley on the internet but what I enjoyed reading the most was Edward Dolnick’s book The Rescue Artist. He uses the theft and recovery of Munch’s The Scream stolen from Norway’s National Gallery in 1994 as the central story (hugely entertaining, presently in development to be made into a movie) and intersperses it with lots of other juicy art crimes. Charley turns up in most of them either playing the role of himself – the intrepid self-styled art sleuth – or if he was part of a sting operation posing as a middleman or a dodgy art-dealer. Each case is a heady cocktail of mystery, greed, power and incredibly beautiful and important works of art by the likes of Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vermeer and many more. ‘Is it all true?’ I asked Charley one afternoon as we sped into Oxford following a tip-off that the Ashmolean Museum was going to be targeted for its collection of clocks and watches. ‘Most of it,’ he replied.

The chapter entitled “The Rescue Artist” is Charley’s bio. He’s half English, half American. His Mum, Zita Widdrington, was the daughter of a Reverend and a member of the high-kicking dance troupe The Bluebell Girls (the Kay Kendall character in the Gene Kelly movie Les Girls is based on her). His Dad, Landon Hill, was an Air Force officer and then worked for the National Security Agency. He was one of the first American soldiers at Dachau concentration camp. What he witnessed there haunted him to his death. After the war he became an alcoholic and died in a car accident when Charley was 18. Charley spent most of his childhood living in various cities on the east coast of America and in Europe attending no less than twelve schools. A precarious life style, but one that allowed Zita to bring him and his two sisters to all the great art institutions wherever they went. Perhaps it gave him a sense of stability, looking at the never changing landscapes and faces that inhabit the great masterpieces he came to know so well. One of his favourites is The Skater by Gilbert Stuart (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). He sees in it a man gracefully gliding through life. l later found out he’d love to own a painting by Edward Hopper who he regards as a twentieth century Vermeer. Before his career took him back to the realms of art he was a paratrooper in the Vietnam War, studied History at Trinity College Dublin (I studied Italian there), Theology at Kings College London and worked as a cop for 20 years – the last three as the supervising Detective Chief Inspector of the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard. Above all, Dolnick paints a picture of a man of parts: erudite but would be a square peg in a round hole in academia, courteous but swears like a sailor, humble yet admits to being thoroughly vain and arrogant, a quintessential boy scout when it comes to helping others yet a self confessed lone wolf although extremely partial to a good malt whiskey shared with intellectual banter. I liked the sound of him.

What I didn’t know before meeting Charley was that these days he’s hot on the trail of the Holy Grail of stolen art: Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence also known as The Adoration. Caravaggio painted it in the Oratory of the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo in the late summer of 1609 while he was on the run in Sicily. It stayed there for over 350 years before some dimwit (they usually are) sauntered in on the 16th October 1969, cut it out of its frame and sauntered off with it. It’s a huge painting, roughly six feet by nine feet but the priest who was having a siesta next door heard nothing. To this day its theft remains a mystery: who dunnit, why, where it is now – if it still exits at all. It’s far from Caravaggio’s most well known works but continues to inspire a welter of speculation. One rumor has it that ex Prime Minister of Italy Giulio Andreotti, ordered its theft. Seemingly he burst into tears when it was brought before him not because he was so awed by its beauty but because it had been so badly damaged by the thief who probably folded it up into eighths and stuck it on the back of his Vespa. True? Who knows, but in this world anything is possible. Then there’s the case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings, all thirteen of them stolen on St. Patrick’s Day 1990 with a collective value of $1 billion and a reward of $10 million but that’s another story.

Our first meeting was at Tide Tables Café under Richmond Bridge on a very wet and windy Sunday morning. We arranged to meet at 11.30 am. He was coming straight from church, I was coming from my bed in Swiss Cottage. I was early. He was late. When he arrived he was adamant about buying the coffees even though I’d already had one, so I settled on a croissant just to humour him. He did most of the talking, diving straight into the Caravaggio case and the Gardner Museum theft. For all the research I’d done, I could hardly keep up and as much as I wanted to, I was too embarrassed to take notes. I’m sure we were there for over an hour but I would have stayed longer, I found him fascinating.

There’s no routine and to my infinite joy no admin work. To catch up on everything, we usually meet once a week at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square or if it’s a nice day at the Courtauld Gallery, one of my favorite museums in London. Charley will treat me to lunch and randomly proffer the latest updates on various cases. I listen attentively, trying to piece together all his snippets of information into some sort of logical order. I repeatedly have to ask him who this person is or how that one’s involved, but he’s extremely patient. I think I’m beginning to get the picture but as he says, don’t bother trying, it changes every day.

As I’m learning, recovering stolen works of art involves speaking with a lot of different characters from a lot of different backgrounds: from the powers on high (Scotland Yard, Interpol, governments), to the powers down low (gangsters, crooked art dealers, international criminals) to those shady folk who straddle both worlds (penitents, informers, dealers who knowingly sell stolen art and antiquities, fakes and forgeries – there’s more than you’d think) and everyone else in between. I can be hob-knobbing with sharp dressed Bond Street dealers with plumy accents one minute then shaking hands and having a drink with one of Britain’s most wanted criminals the next. With Charley, it’s all in a day’s work. Ultimately his only concern is recovering the stolen works of art.

When I’m not ‘pounding the streets’ I may well be doing a spot of translating, more specifically letters to Archbishop Pennisi of Monreale in Sicily. Charley’s been working on recovering precious treasures stolen from the Cathedral in Piazza Armerina in the province of Enna for years. Little by little, members of the local Mafia are coming forward to help him. He’s been back there twice in the last three months alone and spent the last trip acting on a tip-off, wading through muddy riverbanks under a scorching Sicilian sun hoping for a glint of the precious jewels, ditched there by the thieves who knows when. Looting and pillaging of religious and ancient works of art is a huge business in Italy and internationally. Sadly it’s all too often condoned by art institutions and private collectors worldwide. I ask Charley more about this in our interview below.

Since working with Charley my view of the art world has changed dramatically. In one way it’s a bit like having a look under the carpet, delving below the aesthetics and finding all manner of questionable entities. On another level, it’s opened up a whole new dimension I had no idea existed.

What follows is an interview with Charley about cases we’ve been working on together over the past three months and aspects of art crime I wanted more clarity on such as the difference between a reward and a ransom.

In search of the real Caravaggio and other great works of art: Interview with Charley Hill

Tuesday 24th July 2012 at the National Gallery, London

TC: Charley, we’re riding the wave of Caravaggio mania at the moment so I’d like to start by asking you about your search for Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St. Lawrence. Can you tell me what happened, who stole it and what’s the likelihood of its recovering?

CH: In the Fall of 1969, thieves broke through into the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo and stole Caravaggio’s great Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. It was assumed to be a Mafia inspired theft. It may have been. They certainly became involved in some ways later on. Obnoxious half-wits stole the painting because they are Philistine half-wits. It cannot be recovered in the condition in which it was stolen, but the canvas cadaver can be recovered in my opinion.

TC: Let’s be optimistic and assume you find it, what type of restoration will it need? Then should it be put back in the Oratory of San Lorenzo? If not, where do you think it should be hung?

CH: The restoration of that Caravaggio will take some ingenious form. The Church of the Eremiti in Padua has an interestingly, partially restored series of frescoes by Mantegna on its walls. The destruction was done by a series of bombing raids on German troops in Padua during WWII by Allied air forces. The restoration was a work of genius by an Italian mathematician and his helpers. In the National Gallery in London is a picture by Cima de Conegliano called The Incredulity of St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas). It was dropped into the Grand Canal in Venice over a hundred years ago and completely repainted recently. It’s a masterpiece of restoration. Once the Caravaggio is recovered and restored as much as it can be, it should go where the Archbishop of Palermo thinks it should go. I’m sure he’ll take good advice. I think it should go where it can be seen, admired and protected from thieves, earthquakes, storm and fire.

TC: I know you’ve got your heart set on finding other stolen art treasures from Sicily, I’m referring to the ancient Byzantine icon of the Madonna from the Cathedral of Piazza Armerina. Can you tell me about this icon and the frame which I believe was a later adornment to the icon and if I’m not mistaken it was only the frame that was stolen? Why would somebody steal this?

CH: Roger de Hauteville was the Norman knight in the 11th century who led the people of Sicily to oust their Saracen rulers. The Pope at the time, Nicholas II, gave Roger an icon that may have been a pre-iconoclastic one, that is, a work of Byzantine art from the 8th century. Whatever its age, later centuries saw it adorned (in fact, it went missing in a big box for some centuries) and in the early 17th century it was festooned with jewels, Hispanic gold, gilt bronze and so on and on. The frame itself was made with silver and other precious metals. People stole from the icon because they could and thought it would satisfy their greed. It hasn’t satisfied anyone’s greed so far as I can tell, although there may be a few people who feel smug about having some of the valuable things on it.

TC: Do established art institutions and museums purchase stolen works of art and antiquities? What do you say to these institutions?

CH: Institutions do purchase stolen things, largely inadvertently, or blindly, or willfully blindly. What I say to individuals and institutions is that you have a conscience or collective consciences. Use them. Do what’s right. In English law, once something is stolen, it is stolen, and no one has better title to the stolen property than its owner.

TC: I’ve read that art crime is the third highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide behind the drugs and arms trade. Can you give me some realistic facts and figures?

CH: More crap is talked about art crime figures than any other subject, other than health remedies and religious or political certainties. I have no realistic figures, and no one else does either, not collectors of statistics, bureaucrats, soothsayers nor bullshitting police officers and the like.

TC: Besides the 1970 UNESCO convention, what measures have governments put in place to deal with art crime? Do you have any suggestions you could offer them?

CH: Other than international agreements, the best thing governments can do is tighten their laws of theft and enforce them internationally. I would include thefts by deception which would include art frauds, forgeries, fakes, willfully dodgy attributions, and intentionally bogus provenance.

TC: How much of art crime is carried out by organized criminal bodies and how much by individuals working for themselves?

CH: I don’t know what the answer is to that but my guess is, most individual thieves have some organized crime connection. They may not be part of some dreadful drugs gang, although it does happen, but by and large art theft is done by people involved in serious organized crime. They steal things because it gives them a buzz and they know they can get away with it.

TC: Do you ever find yourself in dangerous situations? How do you communicate with these people?

CH: I like dangerous situations. I used to be a paratrooper over forty years ago. It gets into your blood. We’re supposed to be surrounded. I treat everyone I meet in the same way and speak to them in the same way: directly and reasonably courteously, although I do make exceptions to the courtesy. Somehow, I manage to convey to people that I’m reasonably straight and reasonable, and not a particular threat to them. I’m a loner who enjoys closer contact on occasion, then the space to do my thing.

TC: Why is it so important to find these works of art? How will their recovery affect the general public?

CH: Art is part, in substance and theory, of the values we have as human beings. There are 7 or 8 billion of us, and we need art, especially great art and architecture, literature and ideas and traditions to help us be and become more fully human. I think that is our common, even though warring or conflicting, humanity. In my opinion, art is God given. Admittedly, a lot of art is bullshit and many artists and art world types are assholes, but still, art is a God given grace.

TC: What’s the likelihood of London’s museums and galleries being targeted during the Olympics?

CH: London during the Olympics and after them should protect its great works of art and architecture better than it does. The minds who destroy great shrines from Jehanabad through Najaf to Timbuktu are out there. If they get a chance, they’ll wreak their destruction here.

TC: What’s the difference between a reward and a ransom? Why is a reward acceptable whereas a ransom isn’t?

CH: A reward is something that should be offered and paid for the recovery of works of art because it makes the people who live and work in the grey area of art crime much more amenable to doing something than not when it comes to recovering stolen works of art. It’s also legal to offer a reasonable reward, so long as you don’t offer the reward to the thief, that’s an English law. As a matter of proportion ransoms tend to be much greater than rewards and as a consequence they may in fact get paid to the thieves which would be a terrible mistake because 1) it’s illegal and 2) counter-productive as it just encourages them to steal more. However a reward would tend not to do that and as a matter of proportion a reward would be a great deal less than most people would ask for than a ransom. Generally speaking you offer a reward, you don’t offer a ransom, you demand a ransom, you don’t demand a reward. I think rewards are to be encouraged and certainly in no way discouraged. The largest reward I know on offer for stolen works of art is the $5 million for the Gardner Museum paintings stolen in 1990 but generally speaking, up to about £100,000, 10% of the value of the item that has been stolen is probably a reasonable reward. However after £100,000, the amount drops, so that if it were worth £150,000, you wouldn’t offer £15,000, you’d still offer £10,000. That’s how it works.

TC: So how do you entice thieves to give back the stolen works of art if legally you’re not allowed to offer them the reward?

CH: A thief will steal something and then straight away pass it on to somebody else down the line. So the people you’ll be dealing with anyway are people down the line. A case in point is Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I said to a man who knew where it was, “you get the reward, it’s a public advertised reward, you know what it is – see what you can do.” He certainly wasn’t a thief or the handlers, and he wasn’t the man sitting on it, he was the man who knew the man who was sitting on it, so in that case it was perfectly reasonable for him to get the reward and that’s exactly what happened.

TC: If I knowingly buy a stolen work of art, have I committed a crime?

CH: It depends – if you bought it to return it, no. However if you bought it for yourself knowing it was stolen, you would be committing a dishonest handling offense.

TC: Would I be entitled to a reward if I wanted to return it to its rightful owner?

CH: You could be, yes, if you came straight up and said, “I’ve bought this, it’s stolen, if there’s a reward going, here it is, I’ll accept the reward,” that would be legal.

TC: That’s interesting. Has that ever happened?

CH: I’m sure it’s happened, I’ve never been involved in something like that but it would be a matter of tension that’s for sure. There was the case of Leonardo’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder in Scotland but in the end the painting was recovered through an undercover police operation.

TC: Charley, thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

CH: It was my pleasure.


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