How do you fence a Titian?

It's easy, if you believe what you see on TV. Geraldine Norman on handling stolen goods

The Swiss Air flight from London touches down and Heinz Klostens, mastermind of the art market underworld, waits in his air-conditioned vault in the Geneva freeport for the spoils to come home. Behind him hangs a portrait of Rembrandt's mother.

Big Al, the network's London agent, slips through the door carrying a bag of golf clubs. Without speaking, he removes the sawn-off golf clubs to reveal a custom-built cannister of neatly rolled canvases. Klostens unrolls them on his desk. The delicate tones of Titian's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" glimmer in the strip lighting, outshining by far the stiff northern portrait of "Eleanor of Austria" and a baroque "Personification of Justice", all now reduced to rags of painted cloth with cracking varnish.

Out of his briefcase Big Al takes a Russian icon and a watercolour landscape, still in its frame. "'Ere's the stuff from Combe Florey," he states, with his habitual economy of words. "The other gear's from Longleat, 'ome of the Marquess of Bath."

That's how the screenplay may open when the BBC drama department catches up with the latest wave of country house burglaries. On 5 November, a small portrait of Rembrandt's mother, long a treasured possession of the Earls of Pembroke, was stolen from Wilton, near Salisbury. The painting had recently been downgraded by the Rembrandt Research Committee to a follower's work. On 6 January, a Titian, a Joos van Cleve and a Bonifazio Veronese were stolen from the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. On 7 Ja n uary, a Russian icon and a watercolour that Auberon Waugh gave his wife, Theresa, for Christmas, were ripped from the couple's bedroom wall at Combe Florey in Somerset - a theft apparently regarded by police as in the same league as those at Wilton and L ongleat.

News reports have suggested that the thefts were the work of the same gang since the thieves left an expanding aluminium ladder behind on each occasion, leaning against the first-floor window where they had smashed the glass and entered. Reports have also suggested that the thefts may have been commissioned by that old chestnut, a crooked art lover who gloats over a hoard of stolen masterpieces in a secret lair in Asia or Latin America.

The link between the thefts is unconvincing. Anyone who steals a painting from a first-floor room needs a ladder. The thieves who took Lady Theresa Waugh's Christmas presents will presumably have little difficulty in selling them - in a minor auction in Germany, say, or Holland. The Marquess of Bath's Joos van Cleve and Bonfazio Veronese could probably go the same way. But the Titian and the Rembrandt could not be sold openly anywhere in the world without recognition.

And if there is one thing that Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad and the American FBI agree about, it is the implausibility of a secret collector existing who hoards stolen masterpieces and commissions their theft. Half the pleasure of owning an artwork lies in showing it to friends.

The prime reason for the theft of art masterpieces appears to be the pig ignorance of burglars. They probably watch too much television and it leads them to believe that the crooked hoarders of masterpieces actually exist - and that great paintings can easily be sold for great prices. As the incidence of art thefts rises, it is becoming difficult to say whether the thieves are imitating screenplays or screenplays imitating thieves.

Titian's Flight into Egypt might be worth £5m if it were sent to auction by the Marquess of Bath. But no millionaire buyers will spend that kind of money on a picture they can never exhibit or resell without sparking a police investigation.

The gang that stole Edvard Munch's The Scream from Oslo's National Gallery last February is a case in point. First they tried to ransom the work but the National Gallery wouldn't pay. There is no incentive for a gallery to pay a reward for the return of a painting; any payment would be likely to spark further thefts. The thieves were then gulled into believing that agents of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad were from the London art underworld and genuinely interested in buying the painting. When the time came to pay, the gang was arrested.

Similarly, the Corsicans who engineered the theft of Monet's Impression, Sunrise from the Musee Marmottan in Paris in 1985, along with four other Monets, two Renoirs and a couple of minor works, came unstuck when they tried to sell them in Japan. They were right in thinking that there were millionaire art investors in Japan who were ignorant enough about European art history to believe it was possible to buy Monets in good faith. But no one spends millions on art without calling in an expert. Phone call s between Japan and Corsica were tapped and, in 1990, the French police picked up the paintings in a Corsican apartment after a tip-off.

There are many masterpieces on the missing list - Jean-Baptiste Oudry's The White Duck, stolen in 1990 from Houghton Hall, and Vermeer's The Concert, stolen with 10 other paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston the same year. But it's odds on that they will be recovered.

Art theft is good business as long as you stick to relatively minor works from obscure collections, which can be sold with little chance of recognition. There is a huge number of such thefts every year, particularly in eastern Europe and Italy. The laws

applying to theft in most countries, other than Britain and the United States, give bona fide purchasers of stolen goods title to them after a statutory period has elapsed since the crime. The stolen works thus slip back into overt circulation.

It is a different story with veryfamous paintings. These thefts take place, either because the thieves are ignorant of the difficulties, or because they hope for a ransom from the insurers.

A reward of £100,000 has been offered for the return of the Longleat Titian by Tyler, the loss adjusters. But under British law no pay-out is permitted unless information is obtained that leads to an arrest. Maybe the thieves have already realised that pinching the Titian was not such a clever move.

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