Art for arms' sake

A Texan blonde, shadowy 'charitable' organisations, stolen artworks that may have been used to fund the Falklands War and a trail leading from London to Taiwan to Buenos Aires... Simon Worrall investigates a real-life art heist more complex and unbelievable than a Frederick Forsyth bestseller
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The Independent Online

In April 2001 a brassy blonde from Dallas, Texas, named Gabriella Williams, walked into Sotheby's, London, and pulled from her handbag photographs of 16 rare and valuable works of art. With her false eyelashes, big hair and dripping jewellery, Williams did not look like your typical art connoisseur. But she was also president of Humana Way International, a charity organisation registered in Texas. And like many good, Christian folks in George Bush's home state she wanted to do her bit to help those less fortunate than herself.

It was a mouthwatering collection: Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin, Degas, Matisse... all the big boys. Of course, Sotheby's would be happy to provide an estimate of the value of the paintings. But, first, it would need to see them. Where were they? Williams explained that they were in Taiwan, and that they belonged to another charitable organisation, The De Lavor Trust, which was registered in Paramaribo - the capital of the tiny South American Republic of Suriname - by a wealthy timber merchant of Taiwanese extraction named Arthur Lung.

With a house in Los Angeles and vast timber concessions in his adopted country, Lung is one of the richest men in Suriname. Whether he is a good Christian like Williams, I have been unable to ascertain, but together these two munificent souls hoped to raise money for their respective charities using the paintings in what is known as a hypothecation scheme.

Say you have a pile of diamonds. You take them to a bank and the bank lends you a portion of their value. This money is then farmed out to an investor who plays roulette with it on the stock market hoping to make a windfall profit. The plan devised by Humana Way International and The De Lavor Trust, whose members sat on each other's boards, was to create an "Art Investment Program" by borrowing a large amount of money against the value of the art for "humanitarian operations" in Suriname and other parts of the world. This was only the beginning. A fax to one of Humana Way's German partners talked about a second project worth $650m (around £342m). Williams' and Lung's charitable intentions were positively Geldofian.

The De Lavor Trust's ownership of the paintings had been attested to on official, embassy notepaper by an "ambassador" of Suriname named Rupert L Christopher. And they had been valued at $350m (around £185m) by one Dr Henry Armand Venoaks of the Fine Arts Institution of Suriname. Now, it is true that Suriname is not the first word that leaps into one's mind when you say the phrase"19th-century French Impressionist art". It is better known for a hermaphroditic toad, known locally as a "pipa", about which Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that (omega) inveterate collector of arcanae, wrote in one of his notebooks; and for footballers such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Ruud Gullit, all of whom hail from this remote, Dutch-speaking republic, which nestles between Guyana and French Guyana in the far north of South America. So before they could get their hypothecation scheme rolling, Humana Way International and the De Lavor Trust (Lung and Williams) needed to get an "official" valuation.

In its time, Sotheby's has heard plenty of outlandish stories about the provenance of works of art. Why couldn't this one be true? Their curiosity aroused, two Sotheby's employees were duly dispatched to Taipei to meet with the "owner" of the paintings, Lung. Also present at the meeting were Lung's brother, Yunhuei Lung, of Taipei, Williams, and several other board members of Humana Way International, including Williams' British husband, Alan, and a specialist in Korean affairs based in Seattle named John Thorpe, who had been appointed president of Humana Way International for South and North Korea.

"I was totally gobsmacked when I saw the paintings," says Williams. They had been taken off their stretchers, which lowered their value. You could have rolled them up in a tin!"

Which is probably how they had arrived in Taiwan in the first place. Details, details... The important thing, as Sotheby's confirmed, was that the paintings were authentic. Unfortunately, the esteemed auction house's estimate of their value was rather lower than that provided by the mysterious Dr Venoaks. About $348m (around £183m) lower, to be precise. Though the artworks were by heavy hitters, they were in the main drawings and sketches. The most HWI and The De Lavor Trust could hope to squeeze out of their "Art Investment Program" was a couple of million bucks. "I can't work with anything like that," Williams tells me, sniffily, "it's too little."

As it was, a bombshell was about to drop in her lap.

When Williams first walked into Sotheby's London office in April 2001, the auction firm did not immediately check on the paintings' provenance. A spokesperson for the firm claims that this was perfectly normal. But to those of us who live in the real world, this would seem a peculiar way to proceed. It costs a lot of money to fly people to Taiwan, put them up in hotels, wine and dine them. Sotheby's also pays a significant sum each year to a firm called Art Loss Register, which possesses the world's largest electronic database of stolen art. And yet it was not until over a month after William's initial visit that Sotheby's contacted ALR to check if the paintings had been stolen - several weeks after its two employees had flown to Taiwan.

The report that came back from ALR was explosive. Far from belonging to The De Lavor Trust, the 16 artworks had been stolen from the Museum of Fine Art in Buenos Aires more than a quarter of a century earlier. In extremely murky circumstances.

It was the middle of the night on Christmas Day 1980, as the rest of Argentina slept off its Yuletide excesses, that thieves climbed through the roof of the Museum of Fine Art - a two-storey building fronted by Greek columns in the centre of Buenos Aires. At the time, the second-floor gallery was being remodelled and construction workers had removed parts of the roof. Ladders had been left standing against the walls and it is believed the thieves used these to gain access to the museum

They came with a detailed shopping list, cherry-picking items from both floors, while leaving behind other, more valuable works. Even then, it was a major heist: 16 French Impressionist paintings and drawings, including Ballerina, a pastel and charcoal study by Edgar Degas regarded as one of the finest of the painter's studies of dancers. The pictures were removed in their frames and loaded into a waiting truck. The thieves also used blowtorches to cut open metal cases containing valuable Chinese vases and carvings. The total value of the haul, even then, was estimated at $25m (around £13m).

Though of disparate genres and quality, the stolen artworks had one thing in common: they were all part of what was known as The Santamarina Collection. Antonio Santamarina, who died aged 92 in 1974, was one of Argentina's richest estancia owners, with vast cattle ranches all over the country. He also had a pretty good eye for art and, during trips to Europe from 1895-1930, he had amassed what was regarded as the finest private art collection in Latin America. Highlights of the collection included a 1876 work by Renoir, showing the artist among a group of friends in his studio and Manet's Isabelle au Manchon.

The collection became the subject of a bitter legal battle with the Argentine government when, in 1974, the Santamarina family took many of the best works out of Argentina to London, where they were auctioned at Sotheby's. The Argentinian government tried to prevent the sale, claiming that the paintings were part of Argentina's "patrimony" and that they had been illegally removed. But the auction went ahead and a bitter legal battle ensued regarding the remainder of the collection. Finally, the widow of Antonio Santamarina agreed to donate what remained of the collection to the nation. And it was these paintings that were removed on Christmas Day in 1980.

Rumours immediately began to circulate about the true identity of the thieves. The two security guards on duty that night had been held for questioning and, according to some accounts, given a roughing up by the notoriously brutal state security service, the Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (Side). But few believed that a couple of nightwatchmen could have organised such an audacious and skilful art theft. It was rumoured that a military lorry had driven up to collect the paintings; and that the paintings had subsequently been seen in the office of Otto Palladino, the head of Side. And that behind the operation lurked the most brutal henchman of Argentina's Dirty War, Anibal Gordon.

"His nickname was El Coronel [the Colonel]," says Maria Lara Avignolo, an Argentinian journalist who has written about the case. "He worked for the secret services, mounting special operations. He was also involved in numerous kidnappings and ran a concentration camp called Orletti, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, where The Disappeared were taken. He was a violent and sadistic person. A true criminal."

Gordon was also a key player in Operation Condor, the clandestine campaign of assassination, counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering operations implemented by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone, which meant he had extensive contacts all over South America. Most explosive of all was the rumour that the paintings had been used to procure arms from Taiwan for the Falklands War. "There was an arms embargo against Argentina at the time," explains Avignolo, "and the Junta worked a lot with Taiwan, because it was the only country willing to break the embargo. Taiwan was also a triangulation point for other countries - the Junta even had an ambassador in Taiwan, and military attachés, which was very unusual."

Was this how the paintings had ended up in Taipei?

Stolen art has little value if it stays inside so-called grey, or criminal, markets. For it to fetch a high price, it has to get into the legitimate art market. As it passes from hand to hand, it is progressively "cleaned" of criminal associations. In the process, it can move around the world, from country to country.

The journey taken by the artworks lifted from the museum in Buenos Aires in 1980 en route to Sotheby's in 2001 was particularly labyrinthine. According to Julian Radcliffe of Art Loss Register, the art had been transferred from Buenos Aires to Brazil and thence to Lung in Suriname. From there the paintings were moved to Hong Kong, and thence to the care of Lung's brother, Yunhuei, in Taiwan. Yunhuei Lung was also in the timber business. His company, Lung Yow Woods Corp, makes blockboard and other kinds of finished wood products for the Taiwanese construction industry. Radcliffe believes he is also closely connected to the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence.

The De Lavor Trust had been established by Arthur Lung on behalf of a Brazilian Senator named Pedro Mansueto de Lavor, who was born in 1933 in a town called Barbahla in northern Brazil and was the first Socialist senator ever elected in Brazil. How he had become the "owner" of stolen Argentinian art I could not ascertain. In 1998, just around the time that Arthur Lung, with or without his permission, established The De Lavor Trust, Mansueto de Lavor died of cancer.

Despite numerous calls to Suriname, I was also unable to verify the existence of Dr Venoaks, the "art expert" who had valued the paintings at $350m. "I know Venoaks as a surname," says Henry Illes, Suriname's ambassador to the US, when I reach him at his office in Washington DC, "but I don't know anyone of that name." Illes has also never heard of the Fine Arts Institution of Suriname. Nor has the Attorney General's office in Paramaribo or the bureau of home affairs. But Rupert L Christopher, the man who attested to The De Lavor Trust's ownership of the paintings, did exist. According to Illes, he had been in the diplomatic service in the 1990s. In Brazil.

It is 9am in Texas when I reach Williams at her home in Bedford, an upmarket community between Dallas and Fort Worth. Born in Germany in 1954, of an American father and a German mother, Williams has been living in the US since 1980. Prior to that she worked in Germany as an interpreter at Nato and has formerly been married to a US Army colonel. She is now married to Alan Williams, an Englishman who had once worked at Hawker Siddley, in Coventry.

"I was contacted by someone called John Thorpe," she tells me when I ask her how she had got involved in this affair. "He said that he had someone who had paintings that belonged to a Brazilian senator and they wanted to get a line of credit on them. They wanted to do a joint venture with us by getting a line of credit from a foundation. Which could have made a few bob and helped a lot of people. We trusted the thing because it had an insurance policy and these ambassadors' signatures, so I flew to Taipei to meet Arthur Lung."

Humana Way International was registered in the state of Texas as a charity in 1998, with Williams as its president and CEO, in the same year that Arthur Lung registered The De Lavor Trust. Its charitable status was revoked in 2000 for failure to file a tax return. It was reinstated later that year.

Williams repeatedly states that she had no idea the paintings were stolen. "I was in total shock when we found out." (Later, she calls me back to repeat how devastating the discovery had been.) Yet she also tells me that when she asked Lung for proof of ownership, he did not have any. "He explained he was friends with this senator in Brazil who was too ill to travel."

You weren't suspicious that he had no title to the paintings?

"We thought Arthur was an honourable person. I trust everyone until they prove me different. Though in the business I work in 99 per cent of the people are gangsters."

I ask her what that business was exactly?

"It involves getting lines of credit," she explains. "Arthur was going to put up the paintings for a line of credit. He could have touched the yield that came out of it. He was going to do humanitarian work." She pauses, then adds... "Allegedly."

There is an absent-minded quality about her delivery, as if she is reading a magazine at the hairdresser's while she speaks. But when I say that I haven't been able to find anything about Humana Way International on Google, her baby-doll voice takes on an edge of steel. "I don't need to show off what I do," she snaps. "I don't do this work to draw attention to myself. I do it for the people who need help."

She talks a lot about all the people in the world who need help and how she wants to help them. But when I ask her to describe one of Humana Way's past projects, all she can offer is that, since 1998, when she set up the organisation, she has "closed one project with a gentleman in Croatia".

And what did they do?

"They rebuilt Croatia."

Rebuilt Croatia?

"They didn't rebuild the whole country," she says, back- pedalling. "They helped with the reconstruction of some churches and hospitals."

I ask her whom she worked with there.

"He was a very high clergyman in the church," she replies.

What is his name?

There is a pause. In the background, I hear what sounds like crockery crashing to the floor.

"He's dead now," she says icily.

I ask her if and when we here in the United Kingdom could look forward to benefiting from her munificence.

"I've got some things in mind," she says, vaguely. "Churches that need restoring... old people. There are so many people that need our help."

When I press her to name some other projects or people, she grows testy. "I wouldn't tell you if you were God. These things are done in God's name."

At this point, her husband comes on to the phone. Williams listens on another handset, occasionally breaking in to (omega) clarify something. Long pauses between my questions and their answers suggest a considerable amount of semaphore going on in the background.

"We took it on face value," says Alan Williams, when I ask him why he had got involved with a deal that sounded fraudulent at best and criminal at worst. His accent - like his wife's - is a strange hybrid: a mixture of the nasal, Black Country whine of his native Coventry overlaid with a Texas drawl. "Remember we met with Sotheby's, and they gave us no hint that the paintings were stolen. The artwork was never going to be sold. Our aim was to get an insurance policy on which we could get a line of credit from a bank. We wanted to get an appraisal from Sotheby's to get an insurance policy. And they said the works were authentic."

He explains that the profits from the hypothecation scheme were to be distributed among the people involved, including Arthur Lung in Suriname; but that "90 per cent" of the Williams' cut was going to be used for one of Humana Way International's projects. I ask him to describe to me a specific project that HWI had been involved with.

There is a long pause.

"It was going to be used to set up mobile first-aid stations."

Where?

Another long pause.

"South Africa," he says, as though he has just stuck a pin in a map of the world.

"And Zimbabwe."

I sense his wife signalling to him from the other side of the room. "And orphanages," he adds.

So exactly what were the names of the projects Humana Way had established in the past? I ask.

His answers are as vague as his wife's.

"I can't name any because we've never made any money. Like this deal, which never came to fruition."

In other words you cannot name any verifiable projects that Humana Way has carried out? I press him.

"We've helped people out," he says. "Flood victims... things like that. We've helped poor people in different countries."

Is there someone I could talk to, I ask, some objective source who could tell me about and verify any of Humana Way's humanitarian projects?

"Well, there is one man in Africa..." says Alan Williams finally, "... but he's dead."

"I always assumed it [Humana Way International] was a scam," Radcliffe tells me as we sit in his cramped, file-strewn Art Loss Register office in London's Hatton Garden."As was The De Lavor Trust. They were trying to get money for charitable purposes that would never be used for charity."

With his bespoke suits, long, skinny legs and lean face, Radcliffe might give the impression of being a typical City gent. But behind those grey-blue eyes there is a glint of steel that Radcliffe acquired during a stint in military intelligence in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. It was this experience that gave him the skills to found the world's leading kidnap and hostage negotiation company, Control Risk; and then, in 1990, the Art Loss Register.

"It's a database of stolen art," he explains. "We have 170,000 items listed from all over the world. We charge people a small fee to register losses and a fee of 10 to 15 per cent if we get the item back. We also charge searchers a fee. These are buyers, auction houses and art dealers. And, on average, we recover about three items a month."

The Argentinian case presented particular problems for Radcliffe, not the least of which was the fact that Argentina was in the midst of the worst financial crisis of its history. Recovering stolen paintings was hardly a priority when civil servants were not being paid. There were also international sensitivities. In July 2001, a few months after the case had resurfaced, Tony Blair became the first British Prime Minister to visit Argentina since the Falklands War. The Foreign Office was keen to help the Argentinians recover the paintings as a tangible sign of British goodwill towards its former enemy. But the suspicion that the paintings had been used to procure arms during the Falklands War was hardly likely to help usher in a new dawn of fraternal relations between the countries. The Argentinians were also wary of what skeletons Radcliffe might find in the closet.

"A rather telling point was that when I was in the office of the British ambassador in Buenos Aires with two (Argentinian) women civil servants," recalls Radcliffe, "and I said do we need to tell the police about this? They looked embarrassed and said: 'No, we will deal with this ourselves.'"

Eventually, a private donor was found in Argentina to cover Art Loss Register's fees. By then, Arthur Lung, in Suriname, had indicated that he and his brother might be willing to surrender the pictures. And, in January 2002, Radcliffe flew to Taipei to meet Arthur Lung's brother, Yunhuei.

"I met him at a hotel in Taipei with a translator," recalls Radcliffe. "He was about 50, a businessman type in an open-necked shirt. Tough, heavily built, monosyllabic. He smoked all the time. He said: 'Why are you coming here when you British pillaged China?' He then said he had close contacts with the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence and that he could not surrender the paintings without the government's agreement." Radcliffe pauses. "That surprised me."

Radcliffe was even more surprised when, six weeks later, he received a call from a gallery in Paris asking for information on three paintings which had been offered for sale by a young Taiwanese concert promoter named Yeh Yeo Huan and his gay lover, a French classical pianist who tours Asia under the stage name "Lada". Radcliffe informed the gallery that all three paintings - Renoir's Tête de Jeune Fille au Ruban Bleu (Head of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon); Gauguin's Le Cri (The Cry); and a watercolour by Cézanne called La Route (The Way) - had, in fact, been stolen from the Museum of Fine Art in Buenos Aires back in 1980.

"Yeh was a nephew of the Lung brothers," explains Radcliffe. "When I met him in Paris with his lover he became very upset. He got up and gesticulated. They must have been pretty concerned because I was saying they smuggled these pictures in without declaring them to Customs."

The three pictures were seized by the French police on behalf of the Museum of Fine Art in Buenos Aires and negotiations for the return of the other 13 began. But there was to be one final twist to a story that spanned a quarter of a century, half a dozen countries and a cast of characters straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel. On the day that the agreement for the return of the rest of the paintings was due to be signed, Maitre Boulin, the defence lawyer hired by the Taiwanese, was arrested in the centre of Paris for alleged gold smuggling.

Finally, in November last year, amid much popping of champagne corks and flashbulbs, the three pictures were unveiled to the public in the Museum of Fine Art in Buenos Aires. Negotiations are continuing for the return of the others, though the chances of success are slim. Argentina has no extradition treaty with Taiwan. There are also unlikely to be any prosecutions. As a result, we will probably never know exactly how the paintings got from Buenos Aires to Suriname and then to Taiwan; how a Brazilian senator became involved with a Taiwanese timber merchant; and if they were, indeed, part of a clandestine arms sale. Anibal Gordon and others who may have been involved in the theft are dead. Nestor Kirchner's current Argentine government has other priorities.

Arthur Lung and his brother Yunhuei declined to respond to emails requesting clarification of their role in the affair. But, although nothing has emerged to tie the Taiwanese to any specific arms deal or the original theft of the works in 1980, the circumstantial evidence suggests that the paintings were given as a finder's fee for a secret arms deal involving the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence.

"If you look at the map, Suriname is next door to Belize and not that far from Panama, both traditional transit routes for arms and contraband," explains Radcliffe. "Lung might have taken the paintings as his commission for securing the arms. The arms could have been put in a container full of timber and shipped to Suriname."

"The link is military," insists Maria Lara Avignolo. "But I don't think that we will ever know the full story."