Stolen Titians: a sign of the times

Today we start a major new series called "Vanishing Britain", in which we detail some of the major elements in our national heritage that we are in danger of losing if we do not hang on to them.

Estate Agents' Signs. These familiar features of our street-scape, the placards reading "For Sale" or "Under Offer", are rarer than they were and becoming rarer, according to Jim Truebody, curator of the National Estate Agency Museum, in Trowbridge. But why?

"Well, partly because we are nicking them to put them in this museum," laughs Jim. "No, but just to be serious for a moment, the property market is very quiet at the moment, or, in other words, nobody is buying or selling houses anymore."

But wouldn't that mean more estate agents' signs going up? With more houses up for sale?

"Yes, I hadn't thought of that," frowns Jim. "Well, maybe it is because people are recycling them for use in airports."

Use in airports?

"Yes," says Jim. "One of the biggest growth industries at the moment is the amount of people like chauffeurs and drivers standing at airport arrival areas with big placards reading `Mr Aziz', or `British Gas', or whoever they are waiting for. I suspect that most of those placards started life as estate agents' signs, and they have been painted over to disguise their origin."

Titians. Paintings by this famous Italian artist are becomingly rarer and rarer - only the other day one was stolen from Longleat House, the Wiltshire home of the amiably eccentric Marquess of Bath, and has not yet turned up.

"Can't say I'm all that sorry," says Inspector Medlicott, who seems to be in charge of the case. "Between you and me, we never clear up these big art cases, or very rarely, and the more pictures are stolen, the fewer there are left to steal. In this particular case, we were hampered from the very beginning by the fact that he was working under an assumed name.

Who? The art thief?

No, the artist. I suppose we should have tumbled right from the start to the fact that Titian wasn't a proper sort of name. Certainly wasn't a very Italian sort of name. Turns out his real name wasn't Titian at all - it was Tiziano Vecellio! Took us agesto track him down. And then, after all that, we found he was dead."

Of course, at that level of society it isn't uncommon to have an alias. The Marquess of Bath himself is also known as Thynne.

"Is he, by Jimmy I," says Insp Medlicott. "Well, that certainly explains why we can't find him in the phone book ..."

Amiably Eccentric Noblemen. Does Insp Medlicott have any theory as to why Titian paintings get stolen? After all, it is hard to conceive of them being resold, and the theory about the mythical wealthy eccentric collector who wants to hang famous paintings in his own house is a bit hard to swallow. What other possible explanation could there be?

"Well," says Insp Medlicott, "maybe somebody stole the Titian in order to paint it over with a message like `Mr Aziz' or `British Gas' and hold it up at an airport."

Not very likely, is it?

"Exceedingly unlikely," says Insp Medlicott, "but you didn't ask for a likely explanation. You just asked what other possible explanation could there be? I gave you one. Actually, we are working on the theory that the thieves weren't after the Titian at all, and took it by mistake."

So what were they actually after?

"The Marquess of Bath himself."

What! But who would want an amiably eccentric British nobleman?

"Well, they're very popular in America. Maybe some rich but slightly loony recluse wanted one for his collection. Not many left now, after all."

Police Inspectors With Nice, Old-Fashioned Names Like Medlicott. You don't get many real-life policemen with names like Medlicott, do you? In fiction, yes. People called Wexford and Morse and LeStrade are two a penny in fiction ... "That's right," says Insp Medlicott. "They've all got these comforting, solid names in police fiction. In real life we tend to have pretty banal, even unlikely, names. Remember Slipper of the Yard? No crime-writer would invent a copper called Slipper. And as for inventing a police chief called Stalker, your publisher would think you were out of your mind! No, it's very rare to find an officer with a reassuringly bucolic name like mine."

Yes, it certainly is. "Course, it's not actually my name," the inspector adds ruminatively.


"Surprised?" smiles Insp Medlicott. "Don't see why. Lots of villains use false names and aliases. Why shouldn't a copper, too?"

More vanishing Britain soon!