Rescuer of 'Scream' plays down his role: British detective who masterminded recovery of Munch painting ends career with international triumph

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A day after masterminding an undercover operation that helped the Norwegians recover their national treasure - one of the world's most famous paintings - Detective Chief Inspector John Butler, head of Scotland Yard's Fine Art Squad, was yesterday almost too exhausted to celebrate.

Three months after a break-in at the National Gallery in Oslo, when the thieves were caught by a security video making off with Edvard Munch's The Scream, the thieves had been caught by police, and the painting recovered virtually undamaged. In the build-up to the arrests, the team had little sleep.

It was the most important case in his 30-year career, said Det Ch Insp Butler, relaxing in his tiny office, in which a couple of picture price- guides are among the few clues to his specialist investigative area.

Det Ch Insp Butler, a modest man, was smarting at the way he had been described in some of the newspapers. 'One of them has called me a 'hero',' he said with genuine embarrassment. Although the Norwegians say they could not have solved the case without him, he was yesterday keener to praise their efforts or to discuss how co- operation between international forces is the way forward in combating serious crime than to talk about himself.

He was unable to discuss the Munch case, he explained, because it is sub judice in another country: 'It would be totally wrong for us to comment.'

He could not comment on information revealed by a source that one of the three arrested men is British (the others are Norwegian); or on a suggestion of their involvement with another break-in at the same gallery; or that they had tried to resist arrest when police broke into their hotel room in southern Norway.

Mr Butler, 49, is married with two young children and runs a sports club for the disabled in his spare time. He is to retire from the Metropolitan Police after 30 years after being head-hunted by the Grosvenor Clubs, the British casino group with 27 clubs nation- wide, a subsidiary of Rank. It was an offer he could not refuse.

He said: 'I'm going as chief security officer. Bit of change from the art market, but I'm a detective first.'

He began his career on the beat in Fulham. He said that although anyone joining the force believes 'they have a commissioner's baton in their knapsack', it was only in the past 10 years that he had any interest 'in getting on'. He talked of being a detective sergeant for a long time because he liked the variety it offered. Three years ago, he was head-hunted to head the art squad.

Ironically, his interest in art was stimulated primarily by art he came across on the illegal market: he intends to save up to buy Victorian watercolours - inspired by the images his team have recovered over the years.

(Photograph omitted)

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