Five men, including three solicitors, were yesterday cleared of a plot to extort £4.25m for the return of a Leonardo da Vinci painting stolen by axe-wielding robbers from a Scottish castle. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, completed by Leonardo in about 1501 and thought to be one of just 20 paintings by the Italian master still in existence, was snatched from the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch in 2003 and was missing until October 2007, when it was recovered by police in a raid on the offices of a Glasgow law firm.
A jury at the High Court in Edinburgh dismissed the prosecution case that the return of the £20m painting had been part of an elaborate plan by the defendants to make their fortunes by acting as middlemen for the holders of the artwork and extracting a multimillion pound ransom to ensure it was sent back to its aristocratic owners.
The case against the solicitor Marshall Ronald, 53, and the Liverpool-based private investigators Robert Graham, 57, and John Doyle, 61, was found to be not proven under the Scottish legal system. The Glasgow solicitors Calum Jones, 45, and David Boyce, 63, were found not guilty.
The men, who were not accused of involvement in the robbery itself, expressed relief at the verdicts after an eight-week trial which had heard how they were arrested after an undercover police investigation involving officers disguised as art experts and a representative of the Duke of Buccleuch. The painting was taken from his home at Drumlanrig Castle, north of Dumfries, by two robbers posing as tourists who claimed to be plainclothes detectives conducting a test.
Mr Graham, a former publican, and Mr Doyle, who had set up an online company called Stolen Stuff Re- united, claimed they had been approached in July 2007 by representatives of unknown individuals holding the painting, who wanted cash to release it.
Jurors heard that the private eyes, both from Ormskirk, Lancashire, contacted their lawyer, Mr Ronald, to find out if there was a reward for the return of the painting, which depicts the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus holding a yarnwinder – thought to symbolise domesticity and the classical myth of the Three Fates.
Mr Ronald, from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, in turn sought advice on issues of Scottish law from Mr Jones and Mr Boyce and then contacted an insurance-company loss adjuster stating that he wanted to "negotiate the safe repatriation of the painting and negotiate the reward/finder's fee on behalf of our clients".
The insurance company promptly contacted the police, who set in train an operation to gather evidence against the men. Officers posed as an agent for the Duke and art experts during meetings with the defendants, who in turn produced a video of the painting alongside a copy of a newspaper which jurors were told was reminiscent of "proof of life" films used by kidnappers.
Prosecutors claimed that the men attempted to make the Duke of Buccleuch – who died a month before the painting was eventually recovered – and his son fear that the painting would not be returned or would be damaged if the money was not handed over.
The painting, which is now on display at the National Gallery of Scotland, was found in October at the office of a law firm in central Glasgow. Defence lawyers said the men were not extortionists, claiming that the "mad" and "bizarre" plot allegations belied the true motivation of the group to do "the right thing".
Mr Ronald told the court: "There would be a tremendous amount of kudos, like recovering [Munch's] The Scream. This would be recovering a Leonardo da Vinci."