Three famous paintings were stolen from the Kunsthalle Schirn in Frankfurt in 1994. This case of art theft is unique in that the paintings were recovered by buying them back from the thieves; the people responsible for the theft were never brought to justice.
Theft and failed prosecution of “Stevo”
The theft took place on 28 July 1994 in the Kunsthalle Schirn in Frankfurt. The thieves had themselves locked into the museum at night and then overpowered a security guard. The stolen paintings were Light and Colour and Shade and Darkness, a sequence by J. M. W. Turner and on loan from the Tate Gallery in London, and Nebelschwaden by Caspar David Friedrich, on loan from the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Two of the thieves and a dealer were apprehended quickly, but they refused to reveal the location of the paintings and the identity of the people who had ordered the theft. In 1999 they received sentences of up to 11 years. Police were unable to recover the paintings. Insurance companies paid about 40 million euros to the paintings’ owners.
The central suspect, a major figure of the Yugoslavian Mafia in Frankfurt known as “Stevo”, tried to sell the paintings to an underworld figure of Marbella. The two could not agree on a price, and undercover agents from the German police then joined the negotiations in 1995. A new deal for purchase of the paintings was set up, but it broke down in the last minute when Stevo’s negotiator demanded a doubling of the advance payment. Stevo was arrested, but the evidence was deemed insufficient for prosecution; he was represented by the attorney Edgar Liebrucks who had defended several Mafia figures before. The German prosecutors then all but gave up on the case.
In 1998, the Tate Gallery paid 8 million pounds back to various insurers at Lloyd’s of London including Hiscox and other London based underwriters to ensure that they retained title of ownership in the paintings should they ever resurface and to meet the terms of the Turner Bequest. Tate had previously received 24 million pounds from insurers as a settlement for the claim for the theft but was unable to use this money as it may have been deemed that Tate had ‘sold’ the works to insurers. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, after having received the green light from his supervisory board and justice officials, went ahead with a secret plan to buy back the paintings, known as “Operation Cobalt”. An undercover agent from Scotland Yard contacted Edgar Liebrucks, and in late 1999 the lawyer began to negotiate with the Mafia on behalf of Tate. The two sides agreed on a purchase price of 5 million Deutsche Marks per painting. Stevo again increased the demanded advance payment from 1 million to 2 million Marks, and Liebrucks took out a personal loan to cover this payment. The deal for the first painting went through, Liebrucks received about 320,000 euros as compensation by Tate, and Shade and Darkness returned to London in July 2000. Further negotiations then halted; Stevo apparently had lost interest.
In autumn 2002 two men contacted Liebrucks; they indicated that they had possession of the two remaining paintings and were willing to sell. Apparently, Stevo had stored the paintings with them, and possibly they were now acting on their own behalf, trying to hoodwink Stevo. The Tate Gallery then bought the remaining Turner painting for 2 million euros; it returned to London around Christmas 2002. The two men took a six-month holiday in Cuba.
Considering that the Tate Gallery received more from the insurers than it paid to the thieves, it profited substantially. Responding to a BBC documentary on the case, officials of the Tate Gallery insisted that all payments were cleared ahead of times with German and British authorities, and the millions were not paid to criminals as ransom, but for “information that led to the recovery of the paintings”. Sandy Nairne, as of 2012 the director of the National Portrait Gallery and former programme director at the Tate, negotiated secretly for 8 years on behalf of the Tate to get the two paintings back. His experience is chronicled in his 2011 book, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners.
Recovery of Friedrich painting
The Kunsthalle Hamburg then authorized Liebrucks to recover the Friedrich painting. When the two men returned from their vacation, Liebrucks was able to lower the price from an initial 1.5 million euros to 250,000 euros. Confident that he would be compensated later, the lawyer paid with his own money and returned the painting in August 2003 to the Kunsthalle. The two men left for Brazil. The Kunsthalle refused to pay Liebrucks, claiming that he had possibly acted in collusion with the thieves. Liebrucks sued in 2005 and prevailed in June 2006, receiving the 250,000 euros plus a fee of 20,000 euros.