Thieves demand £1m ransom for 'Turner'

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The story has all the ingredients of a detective mystery – a stolen masterpiece, a £1m ransom demand, a reclusive former Bluebell girl and a mysterious go-between.

The painting, estimated to be worth £15m, is claimed to be by JMW Turner, the19th-century British artist whose life and work are the subject of a BBC drama-documentary tonight.

Central to the plot is the painting's owner, Elizabeth Haxby, who died more than a decade ago. Once a member of the legendary Bluebell dance troupe, the childless widow always referred to the portrait of the bearded Dutchman as "my Turner".

A treasured gift from her husband, the work hung on the wall of Mrs Haxby's slate-tiled Devon cottage until it was stolen to order by a criminal gang 12 years ago.

The painting's whereabouts remained a mystery until a few weeks ago, when police received a phone call from a mysterious intermediary.

The caller said he had been asked to broker a deal by the robbers, who wanted £1m to return the portrait safely. The identity of the go-between is a closely guarded secret. He is understood to have told police the ransom demand came from an elderly man with contacts in the criminal underworld.

Detectives from Taunton CID have now brought in an expert from Tate Britain, which houses the world's largest collection of works by Turner.

The only existing image of the painting, depicting an old man wearing a black hat and sporting a white beard, is a photograph that was emailed with the ransom demand.

The gallery says there is no documented mention of Mrs Haxby's Dutchman but that it is impossible to take a final decision on the authenticity of the work unless they see the original painting.

Yet in a surprise move, Avon & Somerset police have announced there will be no ransom payment. They say the case is now closed and anyone involved in the recovery of the stolen painting faces criminal prosecution.

The truth behind the identity of the painting's artist lies with Mrs Haxby. But the 89- year-old widow was so mentally frail at the time of her death that she was unable to explain why she believed the painting to be by Turner.

The go-between, understood to be an accountant from the West Midlands, has now told police he no longer wants any involvement in the matter.

Mrs Haxby's husband, Sidney Seamore Sedley Haxby, a South African, bought the "Turner" for her, but no documents exist to show where it was purchased. Works by Turner rarely come up for auction and when they do they fetch millions. The artist is not known to have painted many portraits.

However, tonight's BBC documentary will reveal that the artist did not limit his talents to watercolours.

In Turner: The Man Who Painted Britain, the art historian Tim Marlow describes the artist's penchant for drawing prostitutes. These works were destroyed after his death to protect his reputation.

Turner also had a reckless attitude towards his paintings and even used one, Fishing Upon The Blythe-Sand, as a catflap. Turner's reputation is so high today that even the "catflap" painting is considered worthy of display.

This reputation also means his works have become the targets of organised crime gangs. When thieves broke into Mrs Haxby's cottage in the village of Wellswood in April 1990, they drilled off the front door lock and only stole a few specific items such as silverware, as well as the painting.

The work was never insured although that is not unusual, according to the solicitors of Mrs Haxby.

"Often if people know a possession is irreplaceable then they believe there is no point taking out insurance," said Sheila Rowbottom, a legal executive with Hooper and Wollen solicitors.

"The robbery was a professional job – they were very specific.

"We were emailed a picture of the painting and believe it is the one which was stolen. The work was old and even if it's not a Turner it will still be worth several thousand pounds."