How search for da Vinci work led police to solicitors' office

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The Independent Online

A police chief yesterday revealed how scores of officers swooped on a solicitors' premises in Glasgow to recover a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci which was stolen from a Scottish castle four years ago.

Detective Superintendent Brian Anderson, who is in charge of the investigation, said the operation to recover the painting, Madonna With The Yarnwinder, involved 60 officers in searches of premises in Glasgow and Lancashire.

A massive international hunt for the artwork, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle near Thornhill in Dumfries and Galloway in August 2003, and the offer of a £1m reward, failed to bring quick results. But Scottish police refused to give up.

Det Supt Anderson revealed how four years of following one specific line of enquiry in a "prolonged and thorough investigation" had led them to the central Glasgow solicitors' office on Thursday morning, to recover the piece, which has been valued at between £15m and £40m.

Police said that the artwork had been stored in a "secure package" and remained undamaged while the suspects attempted to "secure money for the painting".

Four men – one from Glasgow and three from Lancashire – appeared at Dumfries Sheriff Court yesterday. Calum Jones, 52, from Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire, Robert Graham, 55, of Aughton, Ormskirk, John Doyle, 58, from Halsall, Ormskirk, and Marshall Ronald, 51, of Upholland, Skelmersdale were charged with conspiracy to rob and extort money. All four made no plea or declaration at the private appearance on petition before Sheriff Kenneth Barr. They were committed for further examination and granted bail with special conditions.

Det Supt Anderson said: "Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary has constantly had officers dedicated to this inquiry and never gave up hope of recovering the painting,"

He said officers had been following a "significant line of inquiry" for some time, supported by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, Strathclyde Police and other national agencies. The recovered painting is now in a vault and will be carefully examined to assess any damage.

A spokesman said the operation had been handled sensitively, because police did not want the thieves to harm the work.

He said: "We suspected the criminals would look to sell it at some point and we had to hold our nerve until then. If we had put overt police tactics in place, the criminals may well have been spooked and may have thought about destroying it."

Art experts say the masterpiece, depicting the Madonna with the infant Jesus holding a cross-shaped yarnwinder, was painted between 1500 and 1510. The piece, in oils on a small panel, had been in the Duke of Buccleuch's family for two centuries and was his prized possession.

The Duke died after a short illness last month. His son, the 10th Duke, described the news as "wonderful".

He said: "Our pleasure is inevitably tinged by sadness that my father should not have lived to see the safe return of this wonderful work of art. He was the most knowledgeable and conscientious steward of the family art collection and he minded deeply about its violent theft from Drumlanrig. It's worth remembering that the Leonardo was on public display at the time, as it had been at his instigation, for nearly three decades. He was dismayed that not only he and his family but the wider public would be denied the chance of drawing pleasure from it."

In paying tribute to the police, he said: "The tenacity they have shown in pursuing the case has been remarkable and we pay tribute to the skill and courage clearly demonstrated by this very satisfactory outcome."

The Duke said the painting appeared to be in a "remarkably good condition". and his family was "determined" that the picture should go on public view at Drumlanrig once again.