15 years of thefts come to light at Arts Club

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ONE OF the country's most venerable clubs has come to a painful conclusion after the disappearance of paintings worth up to pounds 1m: it is harbouring a thief among its members and staff.

The Arts Club, whose founding fathers include Charles Dickens and where the likes of Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and Winston Churchill relaxed, has been scandalised by a seven-year audit, which uncovered the apparently systematic theft of 45 paintings and its silverware collection.

Today, Tony Banks, Desmond Wilcox and Nick Serota can be seen there, rubbing shoulders with Malcolm Bradbury and Linda Kitson. And if they got together, the topic of conversation would surely be the theft of the paintings. Among works missing from walls and storage rooms at the club in Mayfair, London, are pictures by John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, Jan van Goyen, James McNeill Whistler, Frances Hodgkins, Samuel Palmer and Dame Laura Knight.

The club committee has reported the thefts to its insurers, asked the police to investigate and enlisted Trace, the art-fraud detection agency, but the chairman, David Morris, said initial inquiries had found nothing. "It is very sad, because many of the works were bequeathed or presented to the club by artist members.

"Frankly, I find it curious that so many paintings went missing without anybody doing anything about it. The club was closed for refurbishment from 1974 to 1976. From that period to 1991, somebody appears to have systematically removed pictures."

Suspicion over who is responsible is rife among members at the 18th-century town house in Dover Street. Asked whether he thought the thefts went unreported because someone in a position of authority was involved, Mr Morris, who was appointed chairman six months ago, replied "Yes."

He has written to the club's 1,000 members - who pay subscriptions of up to pounds 525 - for information on the last whereabouts of the various works.

"Inevitably we are talking in some cases about works being rolled up and walked out after dark," he said.

The thefts were uncovered by Michael Preston, an arts design consultant who was appointed keeper of the pictures in 1991 after an incident in which a former chairman, Lord Aberdeen, saw two of the club's paintings for sale at Sotheby's. The sale was halted and a former club official was dismissed.

Since then an examination of records from 1974 to 1991 has identified 45 missing works for which there was no evidence of any sale. The results were recently reported to members in the Arts Club Journal in an article entitled "Lost and Gone Forever", and they make sobering reading.

"As there appear to be no references to the sale of any of them in committee- meeting minutes or elsewhere or any reported loss of them, one can but assume that they must have been removed unlawfully," Mr Preston concluded.

Philip Mould, deputy chairman of the club's pictures committee, said: "It has been a slow awakening to horror when one realises how much has gone. A feeling of enormous sadness has descended on the place. We are, historically speaking, the most important club for the welfare of the arts in London, but we have been the victim of art theft.

"That so many pictures have gone missing is sad, but that they seem to have been taken by someone from the inside is particularly distressing."

Henry Wemyss, a specialist in early English watercolours at Sotheby's, is helping to compile an inventory of the club's art. He said: "When I heard that some pictures were missing, I wasn't surprised. I wouldn't condone it, but you sort of expect a small number to go missing over the years.

"However, I was surprised when I heard how many had gone. I understand it is now thought to be in the region of 50. I have not seen all of them, but the works by Whistler, Augustus John, Samuel Palmer, Laura Knight, Henri Harpignies and Van Goyen could all be of particular importance."

Mr Morris said he believed the missing items could fetch up to pounds 1m at auction. He estimated one piece alone - Palmer's Lonely Tower by Moonlight etching - to be worth pounds 150,000. The club's insurers have rejected its claims because the pictures were stolen so long ago.

Other missing works include Sargent's Spanish Dancers; Knight's Circus Horses; Harpignies' Sunset; John's Girl in Red Dress and Blue Jumper; Hodgkins' Fishing Nets; and Whistler's St James Street, London.

While Mr Morris is determined to right the wrongs of the past, there will be those who would prefer to sweep them under the carpet, and a fractious period could ensue.

Nevertheless, the members of the club are stoical and know that worse things have happened. They still talk, with not a little schadenfreude, of the member who died, in the finest traditions of the Arts Club, from the effort of extracting the cork from a bottle of claret.