Not the full picture: what the media didn’t mention about that stolen Titian

The process by which a tangle of obscure, intractable and sometimes unrelated events is transformed into that neat little thing, a ‘news story’, is a strange business, and sometimes a frankly irresponsible one. Take, for example, the recent Daily Telegraph article ‘A bus stop, a plastic bag and the return of a £5m Titian’, or the similar stories that appeared on the BBC website and in most of the broadsheet papers.

What’s the story about? It is worth running through what passed as the news narrative in its brief entirety, if only to point out the various strange blind spots and elisions. The painting in question, it turns out, is Tiziano Vecellio’s ‘Rest on the flight into Egypt’ which was ripped off the walls of Longleat on 6 January 1995. The Daily Telegraph, like several other papers, is certain that this ‘masterpiece’ is worth £5 million. How fortunate, then, that it should have been found in a plastic bag at a bus stop in Richmond. Truly, we complain too much about transport infrastructure in this great city of ours, where every bus stop potentially harbours important Venetian early baroque paintings, there for the finding!

But wait, it turns out that there is slightly more to the story than simply ‘finding’ the stolen Titian. Indeed, some way into the Daily Telegraph, one learns that the painting was recovered, equally colourfully,

following a secret operation involving a former Scotland Yard detective and a mysterious figure described as a cross between the television characters Arthur Daley and Lovejoy.

And what did the ‘secret operation’ entail? The more one pursues the story, the more interesting – and more bleak – it becomes.

Having read everything in print about this stolen Titian, the following facts gradually drift into view. Some time after ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ was stolen – along with two other paintings, neither of which has been ‘found’ – the 8th Marquess of Bath was offered £1 million by his insurers in respect of the theft, but had refused to touch the money, hoping to recover the painting. Did he despair of hoping that the police would ever solve the crime? In any event, he took matters into his own hands. Following consultation with Charles Hill, a retired Scotland Yard detective and security adviser to the Historic Houses Association, he instead offered a £100,000 reward for information leading to the return of the stolen Titian. A few months after Mr Hill announced the reward on Radio 4’s ‘Today Programme’, the detective was contacted by a man who said he thought he might be able to help – as long as squeamishness about, say, allowing criminals to benefit from their crimes would not prevent him from receiving the reward. He was assured that if he located the painting, the reward would be his. Nine days later, Mr Hill and the man met. Although this is not spelled out in any of the articles, one assumes that the man was given £100,000. Driving around London, he directed Mr Hill to the Richmond bus stop, where he was able to point out a cheap, blue-and-white checked shopping bag from which some cardboard protruded. Thus was the Longleat Titian ‘found’ – or, rather, ransomed back from the criminals who had stolen it. And since it is unlikely that these criminals could have sold it to anyone else for more than a tiny fraction of its value, this is presumably exactly what they hoped would happen.

Why, then, did the papers – for although I am quoting the Daily Telegraph, all the other broadsheets carried a very similar story – opt for the ‘isn’t this just like a whacky crime caper film?’ treatment – c.f. that ‘Minder’ reference – rather than a narrative along the lines of ‘property owner gets fed up with police inaction and pays off criminals in order to recover stolen goods’? Strangest of all is that fact that the same Daily Telegraph included a third leader, making the reasonable point that if this sort of thing is allowed to continue, it will only encourage further crime.

There are, I think, several answers. Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the image of art-related crime. Most people have no personal experience of owning fine art. For them, art is an optional extra, an attractive but unnecessary icing on the basic cake of real life, and thus the Marquess of Bath’s loss seems less real to them than would, say, the loss of a car or a wallet or a mobile ‘phone – and obviously less important than ‘violent’ crime. Secondly, not to put too fine a point upon it, art is generally either stolen from institutions or from those who are assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be very rich. Either way, there is a general feeling that such people can afford to lose whatever it is that they have lost. Public opinion can be inflamed – and rightly so – over pensioners who cannot feel safe in their homes, or – more tendentiously – over the spectre of omnipresent paedophiles. No one, though, is going to riot over an aristocrat losing one of his pictures – no political party will make this a central image of a general election campaign. Thus it is no great surprise that police effort is largely concentrated elsewhere, and that the tax-paying, often financially-precarious property-owners are thrown back upon their own improvised devices. Meanwhile, the fine art thief, like the jewel thief, establishes himself in film and fable as an likeable sort of rogue – appreciating the finer things in life but, unlike those who inherit these, possessing the enterprise and cunning to acquire them for himself – as in The Thomas Crowne Affair and elsewhere.

Parenthetically, however, this is a pity. Art crime is not as distinct from other, less appealing types of crime as some might assume. This is perhaps most stunningly clear in cases such as that of Russborough House near Dublin, where a formidable art collection has fallen victim to a series of thefts linked with the murky world of terrorist racketeering. Nor is this some Irish peculiarity, either. Why steal art? In truth, art thefts almost never have anything to do with love of art – instead, they are ways of acquiring small, portable, high-prestige objects which represent potentially enormous sums of money. Really important stolen art can almost never be sold on the open market, because no responsible buyer, let alone dealer, would be willing to pay millions for something with a shadowy provenance. Instead, such art is either ransomed – as in the case of the Marquess of Bath – or used as collateral within the criminal underworld. And the only criminal transactions where such high-value stakes make any sense are those involving high-level organised crime – a type of crime not only linked with drugs, arms dealing and terrorism, but invariably built on the sickeningly congealed sludge of physical violence and intimidation.

For the media, however, these depths were too dark to plumb, especially in the middle of August. Through a mixture of laziness and ignorance, the nature of the actual transaction that resulted in the return of the picture was obscured. The newspapers state repeatedly, for instance, that ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ was worth £5 million. This is simply bizarre, given that a Rubens painting of disputed authenticity recently fetched £49.5 million at auction. There is no question that if a Titian of this quality, with such a solid provenance, ever came onto the open market, it would attract at least as much interest. Yet the media also seemed vague, not to say inaccurate, about the actual nature of the painting at the centre of the story.

Several papers describe ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ as one of Titian’s most famous works, which it is not. Given the generally level of public ignorance about Old Master paintings, heaven knows whether any of Titian’s work counts as ‘famous’, but if I had to pick a ‘famous’ Titian, I’d chose either the Uffizi’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ or one of the better treatments of Venus and Adonis. For a Titian connoisseur, however, half the point of Titian is snob value. He is, to use the conventional phrase, a ‘painter’s painter’ – i.e. a painter whom not just anyone has the wit to like – and frankly if there is one experience more joyous than encountering a fellow Titian-enthusiast and revelling in the intimacy of shared esoteric fanaticism, it is realising that one can consign some hapless soul into the outermost circles of art-historical perdition for a remark like ‘I’ve never much liked Titian’s brushwork’ since it is not only a foolish remark, but one that identifies the speaker as – well, not One of Us. No, the real problem here is that the media, like the general public, know and care little about Old Masters. Unlike Picasso or Van Gogh or even Rembrandt, garbled versions of Titian’s life story have never percolated into popular culture. So the press were never going to do much with the story on those grounds. Slap on a random figure, use the word ‘famous’, and that’s about as good as you’re going to get these days.

In fact, the point of ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ is not its fame. It is, in fact, a much less sexy word – its security, both of attribution and provenance. Titian was a long-lived, prolific painter whose work was highly valued in his own time. Like any sane and entrepreneurial painter finding himself in such a situation, Titian established what was soon a flourishing workshop – so much so, in fact, that well-informed clients like Philip II specified that they wanted autograph works and even then, didn’t always get them. Titian also had followers and forgers, in his own time and for centuries afterwards, and even autograph works have often been so heavily restored that the hand of the artist is no longer evident in anything other than their broad outlines. Against this background, ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ is a source of wonder and delight, not only because it is so intrinsically appealing – which, with its dreamy landscape and beautiful Virgin, it obviously is – but also because there is so little doubt associated with it. Anyone who lost such a painting would certainly want to get it back, as whoever stole it must have calculated.

Although ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ has sometimes been assigned to Giorgione (not least because of the marvellous softness of the foliage in the background) and was somewhat bizarrely attributed to Beccaruzzi or Fiumicelli by Joseph Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in their 1871 biography, in the twentieth century it has been attributed almost universally to Titian himself, notably by Francesco Valcanover. More recently, there is a typically brilliant discussion of its significance in Paul Joannides’s Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius (2001). That’s really as solid as the attributions for early Titians ever get. Its main art-historical interest lies in the relationship between Mary’s elegant, half-turned figure and some of the figures created by Michelangelo to fill the lunettes Sistine Chapel – this copied gesture an early relic of the love-hate relationship between the young Venetian artist and his brilliant older rival which would only be resolved in Titian’s late, greatest work, the Pieta that should have hung over his own tomb.

So it is clearly an important painting. Although the early history of ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ is obscure, by the late sixteenth century the mists clear, and then the provenance looks very smart indeed. The work may have been owned by the Emperor Rudolph II and kept in his collection in Prague. By 1660 it had reached the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Vienna, and from about 1851 it was owned by Turner’s great patron H. A. J. Munro of Novar, where it hung in his collection amongst the Rembrandts and the Claudes. In June 1878, however, it was auctioned by Christie’s, purchased by the 4th Marquess of Bath, and has remained in that family ever since.

And this is another part of the story. Longleat was one of the first houses in England to be ‘opened to the public’, in the painful sense of being forced to pay its own way as an ‘attraction’ rather than simply as a house. Hence all those lions, those mock-Tudor banquets, those other semi-regrettable expedients apparently necessary to keep an important house in the hands of the family that first erected it. I cannot bring myself to condemn the Marquess of Bath for doing what he had to do in order to recover his painting. ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ is not only an important and lovely object – it is also part both of his heritage and his livelihood. I understand his reasons for wanting to keep the actual mechanics of this unfortunate transaction obscure. Neither he nor his insurers have much of an interest in encouraging – as wider knowledge of such transactions must do – other criminals to steal other pictures. Nor can I blame Mr Hill for wanting to keep his sources secret, in the hope of recovering other such paintings. If the police either cannot or will not resolve such crimes, no one should be surprised that others will try to do so as best they can. Private individuals do not have all the avenues open to them that public law enforcement officers do, and may have to resort to compromise in cases where confrontation would be preferable.

I can and do condemn the media, however, not just for their willingness to copy out wire service feeds and press releases without asking any questions, but for their lazy tendency to treat the story of Lord Bath’s stolen property as light entertainment. The real tragedy of this story is that there is, alas, nothing unusual in the fact that this painting was stolen, and nothing unusual, either, in what Lord Bath was forced to do to get it back. There are lots of reasons why this sort of crime should be stopped. Stealing paintings is bad for the condition of the works themselves and makes it difficult for owners to keep valuable works on public display. More importantly, though, paying ransom money to organised criminals funds, by definition, criminal purposes and hence is bad for decent people everywhere. Yet by refusing to ask awkward questions or to state unpleasant truths – and, worse still, by refusing to take such stories seriously – the media are all but aiding and abetting such transactions.

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