Connoisseur and his Fagin are jailed for pounds 2m art robberies

EVEN IN the bizarre world of crime they made a strange double act.

Richard Lucas, 67, was a retired English teacher and Oxford graduate who adored art and antiques and had contacts with some of the world's leading auction houses. Thomas Atkinson, 47, a working-class chancer from a rough neighbourhood, had connections with some of the country's most prolific burglars.

Together they created a formidable team. Yesterday as the two men were jailed for six years and four years respectively, the full scale of their criminal careers was revealed.

Over a six-year period the men were involved with a gang that carried out 27 robberies that netted an estimated pounds 2.1m of art and antiques from museums, historic houses and private homes.

The case casts light on the shady side of international art dealing, but perhaps the strangest aspect was what motivated the men.

While Atkinson was in it for the cash, Lucas appears to have broken the law for the love of art, or more accurately the possession of art.

When police from Scotland Yard's central area crime squad searched his rented flat in September 1996 in Swiss Cottage, north-west London, they were staggered to discover that the two-bedroom property was packed with stolen art and antiques, and cluttered with huge piles of books and thousands of other artefacts. The hoard was so extensive that several lorry-loads were needed to remove it.

Further inquiries uncovered stashes of antiques at other rented premises. At the back of a lock-up garage in Kilburn, north-west London, stuffed inside a Marks & Spencer bag, officers found five oil paintings worth pounds 419,000. They included Man Pissing on the Moon, by the Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel, son of one of the 16th century's greatest landscape painters. It was among a number of paintings stolen from a central London gallery.

Lucas first came under police investigation after a tip-off. Surveillance officers were amazed to observe Lucas, a millionaire and Lloyd's "name", wandering the streets searching skips and rubbish bins for possible "treasures" to take back to his flat. Police described him as a "complete miser".

The gang's downfall was largely due to Lucas's obsession with record- keeping. Among the stolen art works at his home, police discovered notebooks that contained meticulous records of all his illegal trade, including the names of his alleged accomplices.

Atkinson was the mastermind. He identified many of the targets and worked with a 10-strong team of professional burglars. He recruited Lucas into the network as the respected dealer and collector who had the connections, and was able to sell the stolen goods.

Using a network of informers - cleaners, doormen, builders - or simply listening in on conversations in pubs, likely targets were identified.

At one house in Swiss Cottage, the burglars had prior information about a safe and broke in while the owners were away over Christmas. In a 10- hour operation, they cut open the safe and cleared the property of antiques.

Another raid - on a National Trust museum, Kenton House in north-west London, in 1992 - netted the gang a pair of Worcester vases worth pounds 30,000. They used solvent to weaken adhesive holding them down in display cabinets.

Many of the antiques were sold via auction houses in Dublin.

The gang also used a woman librarian to steal first-edition books stored in the vaults of private libraries in London and then sold them as individual pages, often to collectors in Japan and the United States.

They included a six-volume set of atlases - Civitates Orbis Terrarum - published in Cologne around the end of the 16th century and worth about pounds 100,000. Police found 90 stolen books at Lucas's home.

The police have so far only recovered about pounds 700,000 of the pounds 2.1m of art stolen by the gang. They believe some of the break-ins may have committed as much as 15 years ago.

The burglars named in Lucas's book were all acquitted, although the police were able to convict a third man, Leslie Mason, in his late 40s, who turned out to be the weak link in the gang.

Under questioning Mason admitted his part in the crimes and agreed to become a witness. In return he was placed under a police witness protection scheme. He had to be relocated after threats were made against his life. He is currently living under an alias after serving a reduced three-year sentence for burglary and handling stolen goods.

Passing sentence yesterday at Blackfriars Crown Court in London, Judge Munro Davies QC told the men: "You provided an outlet for the proceeds of very substantial thefts."

The judge said Atkinson's main motive had been money. Lucas, while not an "innocent dupe", was nevertheless an "eccentric with a difference".

But the judge added: "You were not just a magpie, there was a mixture - fuelled by the pleasure of making money and also the pleasure of acquisition."

Lucas, who was convicted at an earlier trial of the main handling conspiracy, also pleaded guilty to four speci- men counts of handling stolen rare books.

Atkinson, of Kilburn, was found guilty of one charge of conspiracy to handle stolen goods and five similar conspiracies between January 1990 and September 1996.

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