On Paying Art Ransoms

In 1994, two works by JMW Turner in the Tate collection:   
Shade & Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge (Shade & Darkness)File:William Turner - Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge.JPG

and Light & Colour (Goethe’s theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (Light & Colour), 1843: 

File:William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory).JPG

were stolen from the schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt during a loan exhibition. Late last week the Telegraph had an interesting piece on the role of Lord Myners and a £3.1 million pound ransom which was paid to a German lawyer acting as a middleman for the thieves. 

Mr Daley challenged Lord Myners over the ransom money after another Tate director admitted in a television documentary that a fee had been paid.

Lord Myners claimed he had been “given an undertaking” by the executives of the Tate that no ransom had been paid.

Mr Daley said: “Lord Myners told me the money had been paid as part of a sting operation by German police, but Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, had stated quite clearly in court that the German lawyer was in touch with the people who had the paintings and they were prepared to hand them over in return for payment.

The piece seems more focused on Myners’ role in another controversy with the pension fund at the Royal Bank of Scotland.  The interesting point I think is that the High Court, in a closed hearing, made a determination that the trustees of the Tate actually had a legal obligation to pay the ransom.  From the Tate’s own press release in 2005:

Tate applied to the High Court for final authority to enter into the transaction. The hearing was held ‘in camera’ in order not to prejudice ongoing operations. The Trustees of Tate, as the Court acknowledged when authorising the payments by Tate, were under a legal obligation to preserve and recover trust property. Accordingly, subject to the recovery being legal (as the Court ruled it was) and the risks of the operation being proportionate, Tate’s Trustees were under a positive legal obligation to enter this transaction.

Tate made payments to Edgar Liebrucks and was responsible for the expenses of those helping in the investigation. It was acknowledged by the Court, and Tate, that the payments to be made by Tate to Edgar Liebrucks might well be passed on to others, including those holding the paintings. However, once Tate had paid the money to Edgar Liebrucks, it had no control over that money. Tate does not know to whom Mr Liebrucks made payment of the monies he had received from Tate. The relationship between Edgar Liebrucks and his contacts was a matter for the German authorities and regulators to pursue, not Tate.

Though the ransom had the blessing of the high court, it may not have been a sound one for the security of museum collections generally.  Mark Durney at Art Theft Central highlights the piece and speculates on ransoms and art theft generally.  He first summarizes the work of criminologist Simon Mackenzie:

The “flag effect” argues that certain types of properties that have been stolen from in the past stand out as more attractive targets to thieves. In “Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation,” in Art Antiquity and Law 2005, Mackenzie cites for an example of the “flag effect” the rash of thefts across Canada inspired by the prospect of a reward after a ransom was paid for the return of six painting stolen from the Toronto Art Gallery in 1959 (10). After the Toronto art theft, “flags” were placed on galleries and museum by virtue of their poor security. 

He goes on:

In the case of the Tate and its Turners, at the time the museum claimed to have kept quiet on the amounts paid for the stolen Turners “in order not to jeopardise the operation.” Also, Lord Myners maintains that the payments were made to informants, and were not ransoms. However, Friday’s article reiterates that the payments, according to the director of the Tate, were made to a German lawyer acting as middleman for the thieves.

Over at Art Knows Tom Flynn argues:

The Tate commented that the most important objective in the Turner negotiations was the recovery of the works of art. What about ethics? The fact that by paying a recovery fee the Tate might have sent out the wrong message to other criminals seems to have been ignored, along with the fact that art theft often involves violence.

Paying ransoms is generally a very bad idea.  It provides a revenue stream for the art thieves, and its one of the only revenue streams if the work is particularly well-known.  Even if an object is sacred, and beautiful and irreplaceable—it is still probably better to risk its destruction or mutilation rather than encourage other thefts. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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