Interpol's CD war on art bandits

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AS FINE art collections go, the number of masterpieces is breathtaking - nearly 400 Picassos, 250 Chagalls and 140 Renoirs. But the priceless paintings are not on view. They are stolen - and they form part of a database of 14,000 works of art and antiques missing around the world.

Next month Interpol, the international police organisation, launches its new weapon to combat the underground industry that's worth pounds 3bn a year, a volume second only to that of the illegal drug trade.

Interpol's art and antiques experts have compiled a pounds 300 CD-ROM database containing 17,000 photographs and descriptions of valuables. The information will be made available to police forces, museums, auction houses, and dealers in Interpol's 177 member countries.

Penny Stevenson, the arts and antiques liaison officer for Interpol UK, based at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said a growing number of works of art were being stolen here and resold in France. "Because free trade between European countries is increasing, a growing amount of property stolen in the UK is turning up abroad. A lot seems to be going to France. The Channel tunnel opened it up.

"It is usually sold at auction houses in France, although only the tip of the iceberg is reported. This year we have a dozen cases where property is turning up in the French market."

Paintings, china, porcelain and silverware are popular, as are eagle- shaped church lecterns, sold to neo-Nazi groups who have adopted the symbol of the bird of prey. Former police officer Nick Tolson, said out of 20 brass lecterns stolen each year in England and Wales, only two had been recovered, both in Germany.

Julian Cox, who works for the magazine Trace, which helps reunite recovered stolen items with owners, added: "These lecterns are being stolen, shipped to the Ukraine, Poland, and the former German Democratic Republic, anywhere there is resurgent extreme right politics. to be used by neo-Nazi groups. Ten years ago we were dealing with a small amount of criminal elements who had sufficient knowledge of fine art to commit fine art crime. It was problematic but largely containable. But now stolen antiques are a commodity which drug dealers use to launder money."

In one of the latest scams, a gang of highly-convincing confidence tricksters posed as buyers for a bogus Italian count to steal millions of pounds worth of paintings, prints and antiques from arts dealers in London, New York, Paris and Amsterdam. Auction houses fund the Art Loss Register, a body that scans sale catalogues for stolen items. The Interpol register will include jewellery, silverware, paintings, candle sticks, regions icons, furniture and statues.

The Concert, by Jan Vermeer, stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardner Museum, Boston, and valued at pounds 50m to pounds 80m

Evening of the Deluge (right) and Morning of the Deluge, by JMW Turner, stolen on loan from the Tate to an exhibition in Frankfurt, and worth pounds 24m

The Portrait of Dora Maar, by Pablo Picasso was stolen from the pounds 151m art collection on the yacht of a Saudi Arabian multi-millionaire in Antibes in March this year while the video surveillance was switched off. It is worth pounds 4m

Portrait of a Woman, by Gustav Klimt, vanished from a Italian gallery in 1997. It is worth at least pounds 2m and police believe it was probably stolen to order

Dedham Mill (above) and The Valley Farm, by John Constable, valued at pounds 1m, were stolen from storage at the V&A in London, in 1998

The White Duck, by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, valued at pounds 5m, was stolen in 1992 from Houghton Hall, considered Britain's finest Palladian houseand Norfolk home of the Marquess of Cholmondley. The thieves took two other paintings and three Louis XVI clocks, but left Greek and Roman sculpture and furniture by William Kent

Art Thieves'

Top 30

Pictures and drawings by famous artists listed by numbers registered as stolen

Pablo Picasso 394

Joan Mir 281

Marc Chagall 250

Salvador Dali 185

Albrecht Durer 145

Pierre-Auguste Renoir 140

Andy Warhol 129

Rembrandt 127

Henry Moore 80

David Teniers 79

Henry Matisse 66

Peter Paul Rubens 58

Auguste Rodin 53

David Hockney 52

Gustave Klimt 47

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 43

Edgar Degas 43

Sir Antony van Dyck 42

Paul Cezanne 37

Francesco Guardi 35

Robert Rauschenberg 32

Max Ernst 28

Edvard Munch 27

Edouard Vuillard 26

Raoul Dufy 26

Francisco de Goya 26

Jasper Johns 26

James Abbott McNeil Whistler 26

Joseph Mallord WilliamTurner 25

Claude Monet 25