A Leonardo da Vinci painting estimated to be worth £40m was stolen from a Scottish castle yesterday. Two thieves, posing as visitors, overpowered a woman guide at the Duke of Buccleuch's Drumlanrig Castle and snatched the masterpiece Madonna with the Yarnwinder.
The painting was the star attraction of one of Britain's finest private art collections, worth an estimated £400m, and which also includes works by Rembrandt and Holbein
There has been a spate of break-ins at castles and country mansions this year. An art theft specialist said the painting would be impossible to sell on the open market, but could be used in part-exchange for drugs or guns.
Last night, Richard Dalkeith, the Earl of Dalkeith and the son of the Duke of Buccleuch, described his "shock and dismay" at the theft of the artwork, which was purchased in Italy by his ancestors in the 18th century. "This is a treasure that has been in my family for more than 250 years," he said. "It's the most beautiful work of art by one of the greatest painters in the world. It is a work of such peace and beauty and the thought of it being sort of torn away from us like this is very sad indeed.
"Thousands of people have come over the years to see it. It's not been shut away and just enjoyed by us."
The thieves struck at the estate 17 miles north of Dumfries, south-west Scotland, at 11am. The men took the painting, measuring 19in by 15.5in, from the oak-panelled hall where it was displayed in a battered Italian frame beside another masterpiece, Rembrandt's Old Woman Reading.
Dumfries and Galloway Police said no firearms were used and no one was injured, although the guide who was overpowered was "distressed". The thieves are thought to have escaped in a white Volkswagen Golf GTi, which was found abandoned in woodland, three miles north of the estate.
Police said one of thieves was in his early 40s, 5ft 10in, and wore a leather jacket and glasses. The other was in his late 40s and 5ft 10in to 5ft 11in. Both were wearing hats.
The painting, thought to have been completed between 1501 and 1510, shows a child holding the yarnwinder, shaped like a cross, and is said to symbolise the Passion and future death of Christ.
The original was thought to have been lost in France, but experts have since established the picture at Drumlanrig Castle as the original. Visitors were allowed to view many of the works in a tour of the principal rooms of the 17th-century castle, which is located in a 120,000-acre estate.
A spokeswoman from the Christie's auction house said it was impossible accurately to value the Madonna because no Leonardo painting had come up for sale in modern times.
The most expensive drawing by the Florentine artist fetched £8m in 2001, and the most expensive painting by an Old Master was a huge Rubens, which sold for £45m last year.
Alexandra Smith, the director of operations at the Art Loss Register, which records details of 140,000 stolen items, said the Madonna could fetch from £30m to £40m. "This is an incredibly important work," she said. "A piece of art like this is impossible to sell in the legitimate market ... No legitimate dealer or collector would touch it with a bargepole. There's every possibility that it could be used to fund drug trafficking or gun running."
She added: "It could just be someone chancing a theft but when they realise all the publicity it has generated they may well dump it." The suggestion that the thieves could have stolen the painting to order for sale to a private collector was dismissed by Ms Smith as a "a wonderfully romanticised view that has no basis in fact" and added that it was "incredibly difficult" for castle and country houses to be secure from thieves because of their size.
A spokesman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service said some art thieves stole to raise cash for organised crime, but most were "low-level criminals".
OTHER STOLEN ARTWORKS
* In March, thieves used a dinghy to cross a moat at Madresfield Court, near Malvern, before escaping with art, silver and porcelain worth £2m.
* In April, paintings worth £4m by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso, right, stolen from a Manchester art gallery, were found in a tube behind a public lavatory.
* In June, a gang of five thieves broke into Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and made off with more than 100 gold boxes and other pieces from Rothschild Collection.
* Last year, two Turner paintings worth an estimated total of £50m, which were stolen while on loan from the Tate to a Frankfurt gallery eight years ago, were recovered in Germany.
* Four years ago, staff at York's City Art Gallery were held at gunpoint, gagged and tied up by thieves who stole 20 paintings worth more than £1m.
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