Stealing the show

Art - Sarah Jane Checkland on the case of the great gallery robbers

Judging from the number of slumbering museum warders I've seen in my time, the job of guarding a nation's treasures can be very boring. I've seen them out for the count, leaning to either port or starboard on their little chairs, beside Canaletto's canals and Rembrandt's self-portraits, in major galleries in cities as diverse as London and St Petersburg.

On more than one occasion, I have even taken advantage of the situation to climb over the rope barrier and get a closer look at works whose brilliant brushstrokes required, it seemed to me, intimate inspection. During those few undetected moments, I could easily have got up to all sorts of mischief, by adding my signature or deftly cutting a given image out of its frame with my trusty Swiss Army penknife. Better still, in deference to the recent remake of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Piers Brosnan, I could have replaced it with a passable fake that I had knocked up at home, walking off with my prize at leisure, in the knowledge that, by leaving the walls looking virtually the same, I had bought some useful time for my getaway.

All over the world, however, warders have been waking up with a start to the news that exactly this last scenario has just happened. Not only that, but twice in one weekend.

First, a $7m masterpiece, Pourville Beach painted by the French Impressionist Claude Monet in 1882, went missing from the National Museum in Poznan, Poland, and a badly painted copy on cardboard was left in its stead. Then, monks at St Josaphat's Monastery in Lattingtown, Long Island, found themselves short of two rare 16th- and 17th-century English tapestry chairs - the earlier of which Henry VIII once reputedly sat on, while the later was regularly used as a throne by the current bishop. As if to add insult to injury, the replicas in Long Island were also far from being convincing substitutes. As Brother Boris Derow, one of the novice monks at Lattingtown, admitted ruefully, not only were the replacement chairs a number of inches larger than their predecessors, but they smelt suspiciously of fresh paint. In both cases, nobody is sure when the theft actually took place: all that is known for certain is the time when someone noticed that there was something funny about the display. The awful thing about the Monet is that - as with all the contents of all the impoverished Polish museums - it was not insured.

This form of ingenuity in museum art theft is surprisingly rare, as gangs tend towards the more prosaic methods of buying time for their escape, by disabling security systems and tying up the guards. During the world's biggest art theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston ten years ago, the villains inveigled their way into the premises by being "fakes" themselves, posing as policemen on a security alert, but they left gaps on the walls when they vanished with the loot. When a gang of drug addicts and dealers made off with Edvard Munch's The Scream in 1994, they left an art postcard in its stead. But that was simply to taunt the police. The postcard features a modern Norwegian painting entitled A Good Story, in which three men laugh uproariously at a private joke. The message read: "Thanks for the poor security."

But there are a number of precedents to the two fake- substituting stories outlined above. In 1996, Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad assisted the Czechs in recovering a series of Gothic masterpieces stolen from the Sternberg Palace in Prague, one of which was The Old Fool by Lucas Cranach - a painting of a gullible old man enraptured by a young girl who is in the process of picking his pocket. Together, a team of British and German detectives worked out that the thieves were members of a gang who had been smuggling stolen cigarettes between eastern and western Europe. Scotland Yard's ace undercover detective posed as a Canadian shyster who made his money by selling stolen art to rich people living in yachts in the Bahamas. The gang members were "bright", he says, but not bright enough to realise that rich residents in the Bahamas are unlikely to have a taste for dark and gloomy Gothic paintings: "We suckered them into bringing the Cranach to Germany," he explains, "where the Germans arrested them."

So how should those responsible for trying to recover the Thomas Crown-style thefts of today proceed? It is likely that the Polish government will offer some kind of reward, in the hope that an underworld "snout" contacts them with information about the Monet's whereabouts. Better still, the fakes themselves might hold the key. Detectives in Poland, for example, will no doubt be scouring the art shops for recent sales of canvases, at approximately the same size of the missing work, and interviewing any impoverished artists who might have been employed to produce an unwitting "copy", the theory being that such inquiry will lead to the villains.

If this course of action fails, however, their only other hope is that - just as in the Thomas Crown film - the mastermind has a change of heart and spirits the missing painting back to its rightful place. In this case, the most helpful action on the part of those sleepy warders would be gently to snooze off again.

Sarah Jane Checkland's Ben Nicholson: the vicious circles of his life and art is published by John Murray (£25)