25 AUGUST 1961, Page 3



Ton theft of the Goya Wellington from a commanding position in the National Gallery spotlights for British benefit the emergence of a new international racket—the ransom of works of art. The recent figures are startling, as if the thieves are only now becoming aware of the scope of their opportunities.

So far, this year, two million pounds' worth of paintings have vanished in the south of France; in July, ten canvases, value £300,000, were taken from a private collection in Pittsburgh, USA; Germany reports the loss.in one year of works to a value of £4,200,000, including a Griinewald and a Michelangelo; in April, four paintings, valued at £9,000, were taken from Montacute, Somerset, amongst them a Reynolds and a Gainsborough.

This is not the work of art maniacs, like Bogos- lawsky, who in 1939 stole a Watteau 'to restore it'; nor of militant patriots, like fife Irish who raided the Lane Bequest, or Vicenzo Peruggia, who exactly half a century ago smuggled the Mona Lisa back to Italy. The paintings are taken, their destruction is threatened, and ransom money is demanded. That's all; an infinitely more com- pact form of kidnapping. Nor would it seem that we can count on the esthetic compunction of thieves like those who left a detritus after the Pittsburgh haul of a holed Matisse and two irre- parably damaged Picassos.

Art-napping is the direct result of a continu- ously mushrooming art boom, which has given Paintings a value-weight ratio equivalent to that of hashish, diamonds or gold. In 1959 the New York Times pointed out that while the Industrial Index had risen 15 per cent., in that same year, the values of Cdzanne and Renoir had appreciated by 80 per Celli. And the inflation continues. Sotheby's turnover has risen from £5,756,742 in 1959, through £6,876,460 in 1960, to this year's £8,440,761. And six weeks ago the Monet Pont d'Argenteuil realised £105,000 in Paris. The works of painters of post-war fame, like de Stiiel, have started 'changing hands at five times the price of a few years ago.

Holding paintings to ransom scores over hold- ing people in every conceivable way. They are easy game, to steal, to stow inconspicuously away. The public wrath will be moved by a kidnapping, but essentially the payment or non-payment re- mains a private decision. But the pressures which are aroused by the threat to a great painting are enorfnous, not only from art-lovers, but from those who find some sort of national prestige in- vested in her masterpieces—the Wellington por- trait is a case in point. And who has the authority to withhold money, and destroy the paintings by Proxy? As the Mayor of Aix said, 'No price can be too high to get the Cdzannes back safe.

Nor are the sentences for the two crimes com- Parable. Kidnapping in France, and in some states in the US, is automatically a capital offence; here it is punishable by seven years. Art-napping can- not at the moment be prosecuted with anything like the same rigour. (An academic point, since there have been no recent arrests. Peruggia, inci- dentally, got one year and fifteen days for his one Year's tenure of the Mona Lisa.) As long as there are great rewards, paintings will attract predators. The only answer lies in a complete rethinking of gallery security. Curiously enough, 1 spoke about the implications of the recent robberies, with Sir John Rothenstein, a few hours before the theft of the Goya. It appears that the Tate are considering new methods of Prevention. There may not be much thine. Once an idea has occurred to the criminal community, they do not forget it.