Art Detective Charley Hill

Recovering artworks from ancient Hebrew bibles to contemporary paintings

Art Detective Charles Hill on the Tracey & Helen Show

Charles Hill, Tracey Citron, Helen Curtin

Charley Hill was great speaking on the Tracey and Helen Show last Tuesday evening. I was quite nervous at the beginning, scared of saying the wrong thing and getting my facts all mixed up – relaxed into the second half though, and Helen, as always, brought a note of hilarity to the conversation and a couple of curious and rather morbid stories about Kilkenny. You can watch it here if you fancy. 
I’m in the pink jumper – techy problems, don’t ask!


Art Detective Charley Hill featured in Garage magazine


Sandwiched between interviews with founder of Natalie Massenet and fashion doyen Sonia Rykiel, the A.D. recounts three famous cases of art theft and speaks about his experiences as an art detective in the latest edition of Garage.

Garage is a biannual glossy art and fashion magazine headed by Dasha Zhukova, girlfriend of Russian oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. It features the vanguard of international art, fashionistas and arty photo shoots. It’s the in-crowd in print.

Charley’s feature spans pages 150 – 157. He fits in as he does in real life – he doesn’t – but his inimitable voice rings through loud and clear and  his knowledge of the art world, the characters that inhabit it and his own trials and tribulations make for an entertaining and intriguing read.


The magazine isn’t online as yet and if you can’t get your hands on a copy don’t worry; here’s the gist of it along with some of my own musings. All text in quote marks comes directly from Garage.

Case 1: the A.D. recounts the largest art heist in history and what I call one of the Holy Grails of stolen art – the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum Heist in Boston, 1990. (The other one is Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence stolen from the 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969)

The entire heist is estimated to be worth around $500 million although in reality it’s impossible to give it a monetary value because 1) from the present owner’s point of view it’s worthless – who’s going to buy famous stolen art? And 2) if – or should I say when – recovered, all the art works will be returned to the Isabella Gardner Museum. However, giving them a hypothetical market value is also unrealistic as there really is no limit to what art collectors are paying for art these days.

Who did it and where the loot is now remains a mystery. The A.D. gives three current strands of enquiry including his own. He writes: “My strand of enquiry leads to Ireland as well, although I admit it may be as speculative as the FBI’s ideas. The robbery at the Gardner Museum was inspired, if that is the right word, by Martin Cahill’s art thefts in Ireland including the great heist at Sir Alfred and Lady Beit’s home, Russborough.”

He believes that the original thieves are now long gone “went to meet our Maker,” as he puts it, but that the artworks are stashed in the land purported to have no snakes. He concludes, “The people who hold the artworks now are not the people who stole them. In my opinion, the reason why they are hidden away is because no one wants to get caught in possession, and those who now hold them are unsure what to do with them. As I see it, my task is to provide them with a few good ideas about how best to deliver those pictures, the finial and the beaker back to Boston.”

There’s also a reward of $5 million for finding them.


Case 2: Recovering Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Charley speaks about recovering The Scream on the BBC World Service if you fancy a listen. However, something I hadn’t heard him say before was, “Munch was an artistic genius and a reprehensible creep. When he died, he was given a state funeral by Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi collaborationist government.” Does this mean he wasn’t a degenerate artist? I must ask the A.D.

Case 3: Lucian Freud’s portrait of Francis Bacon. I’m glad the A.D. brought this case up not only because I’d forgotten about it, but more importantly because there’s a real possibility that the present owner might actually read Garage and be moved to make amends.

The story is that Lucian Freud painted this portrait of Francis Bacon his “sometimes friend” as Charley says, in 1952 and the Tate Gallery bought it the same year. In 1988 the Tate lent it to a Freud retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin where it was pinched off the wall and smuggled out of the gallery. It’s an oil on copper affair, seemingly no bigger than a large postcard so sticking it under a coat or in a bag would have been easy. Many people including Freud himself speculated that a fan/student took it probably on the spur of the moment only later realizing the enormity of the theft. There’s a great article about this story in The Guardian.


In 2001, in a plea to have it returned and in conjunction with an upcoming Freud retrospective at Tate Modern, Freud designed a wanted style poster showing a similar image of the one stolen and offering a reward of 300,000 deutsche marks. 2,500 copies were posted around Berlin but no one came forward. Has the painting vanished forever? I hope not.

The A.D. writes, “Now is a good time to recover the Bacon portrait, because an inferior painting, a triptych portrait of Freud by Bacon, recently sold for an eye-watering $142 million in New York. Because it is in institutional ownership, the Bacon portrait by Freud cannot have such a price tag. However, it can be put on display for us all to admire and contemplate. Recovering that portrait is in the public interest.

“Some poor soul is probably anxious about having the painting and keeping it hidden. Don’t suffer if you have it or know the person who does. If individuals paint these masterpieces, and individuals can steal them, then individuals can recover them. It’s something for us all to consider doing. We have a common bond of humanity and civilization that can embolden us.”

“Garage readers in Berlin can ask around. There may well be a reward comparable to the one advertised on the 2001 poster but that has yet to be decided. However, money is legally available for information leading to the recovery of the painting. Contact and we will work out a way to restore the painting to the Tate.”

The three cases are followed by an interview in which the A.D. discusses how he became an art detective, his relationship with the criminal world and the late art collector George Oritz who he describes as, “the most successful, unprosecuted, dishonest handler of stolen works of art, ever.”

Here’s two of my favourite questions and answers:

Garage: How do you maintain a successful relationship with the criminal world?

The AD: I no longer do undercover work. I did it as a police office because I was asked to. You’ve got to keep your lies to a minimum but you’ve got to present yourself as somebody people want you to be… which is the fashion world all over, I suppose. I’ll only ever lie if I absolutely have to. My patter is pretty much the same – I go as me, a retired police officer, and since I’m pushing 70, it’s easily done.  I’m as straight as I can be with people but with a reasonable amount of charm. I once had dinner with Judge Giovanni Falcone, the world’s most famous Mafia prosecutor, and I asked him, “How do you get the pentiti [Mafia informants] to talk to you?” He said, “When I tell somebody I’ll do something, I do it.” It riveted itself on my brain. Whatever I may think about people personally, I keep it to myself and just treat them as human beings, and that includes people you wouldn’t want to take home to meet your mother.

Garage: Your one of the most renowned people in your field. What marks you apart?

The AD: Bullshit. I’m a straight talker and paradoxically a big bullshitter. Also I tend not to be frightened of anybody other than myself – and I’m not all that frightened of myself either.

Garage Magazine

Garage Magazine

Art Detective Charley Hill interviewed on BBC World Service TV about recovering ‘The Scream’


Today is the anniversary of the theft of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream (1893). It was stolen on 12th February 1994, the same day as the start of the Winter Olympics taking place in Lillehammer. It took the thieves 50 seconds to climb a ladder, smash a window, grab the painting and get away. They also had time to leave a note which said, “Thanks for the poor security” – well at least they had a sense of humour.

Several months later Charley et al., recovered The Scream. He talks about it in an interview on the BBC World Service TV which you can watch here.

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.