Radio may have scared Turner painting thieves

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The Independent Online
THIEVES who stole two Turner masterpieces worth pounds 24m may have been prevented from netting an even larger haul because of a security guard's walkie-talkie.

Sources within the Schirn public gallery in Frankfurt say the guard, who had been bound and gagged, became the object of intense concern when he failed to make a regular check-call by radio. 'We think the subsequent messages from his controller asking where he was were heard by the thieves and they panicked,' one insider said. 'There has been some criticism of security at the gallery, but this shows that at least one precaution worked. This was a tragic theft, a loss to all art lovers, but it could have been a lot worse.'

The paintings, Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge and its companion Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning After the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, were stolen at about 10pm last Thursday, along with a painting by the German Caspar David Friedrich.

Investigators in Frankfurt last night staged a reconstruction of the raid but said they had 'no hot trail' to pursue. Bernd Paul, the officer leading the inquiry, said he had received a positive response from the public. Officers were following up many leads, including the possibility that the thieves might have had inside help.

If the paintings are not recovered, most of the loss will be borne by about a dozen syndicates at Lloyd's. The lead underwriter, Hiscox 33 Syndicate, said yesterday it was satisfied with security at the German gallery and would not be arguing about a payout.

Its managing director, Bronek Masojada, said: 'We have been insuring private and public collections and museums for 30 years. As such, we have to expect a large loss from, time to time and we are prepared for it. If paintings were not stolen occasionally, then no one would have need of insurance.'

It is understood the insurers will pay a six-figure reward for information leading to the recovery of the paintings.

Sandy Nairne, director of public services at the Tate Gallery, returned yesterday from briefings with gallery staff, officials from the city of Frankfurt's department of culture and senior police officers. He described the gap between day and night security systems as 'a loophole'.

Interpol, the Art Loss Register and Scotland Yard have been informed about the theft, but Scotland Yard has not been asked formally to help.

Detective Chief Inspector Charles Hill, of the arts and antiques squad, said the theft was highly unlikely to have been commissioned by a collector. 'In this case, I suspect it will turn out to be a case of insurance extortion where a ransom will be demanded.'