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Culture

Frankfurt Lawyer Was Key to Artwork Recovery

Cash-filled bags, a meeting in the woods, and the Balkan mafia --the recovery of two Tate Gallery paintings stolen while on loan in Frankfurt in 1994 makes for a intriguing tale, new details show.

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Tate trustee David Verey and Turner's Shade and Darkness

In 1994, two masterpieces by William Turner from the prestigious Tate Gallery in Britain were stolen while on loan to Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. The paintings, "Shade and Darkness" and "The Morning After the Deluge," are great works of art from late in Turner's career.

Almost a decade later, the spectacular story behind negotiations by the British and German governments and the director of the Tate to regain the paintings was revealed in documents released this week.

The cloak and dagger tale reveals the pivotal role played by Frankfurt lawyer Edgar Liebrucks, whose clients are thought to include the Balkan mafia.

Liebrucks contacted Tate representatives in 1994 and told them in a letter that he was in "direct contact with those who had possession of the paintings," and that they demanded 3.1 million pounds (4.6 million euros), with 10 percent up front as a sign of trust, for the safe return of the paintings.

Authorities approved payments

Light and colour (Ausschnitt), Gemälde von William Turner

Turner finished Light and Color in 1843

Thanks to 24 million pounds worth of insurance that padded the museum's bank account, the Tate got approval from British and German authorities and wrote the check out to the lawyer.

After getting one painting back in 1999, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, asked British judge Sir Francis Ferris to keep the deal under wraps as a way of increasing the museum's chance of recovering the second artwork as negotiations deteriorated.

British Department of Culture, Media and Sport spokesman Toby Sargent told the Associated Press the use of payments to intermediaries had been approved by the British government.

"We were happy for that money to be used to gain information to get the paintings returned," he said according to AP.

Dean Martin impersonator held second painting

Exactly which painting first made it back into the curator's waiting hands is unclear, however, the second painting is known to have materialized in 2002 from Joseph Stohl's garage, according to "Underworld Art Deal," a German documentary broadcast in November on BBC2.

Stohl, a Dean Martin impersonator who made a living as a bar owner and mechanic in Frankfurt, was having trouble making ends meet and offered to sell the painting he was holding to mafia contacts.

Tate Museum in London

London's Tate Museum

That was all the incentive Liebrucks and retired detectives Mike Lawrence and Jurek "Rocky" Rokoszynski needed to pack 2.5 million euros of the museum's money into a bag and trade it for the remaining painting at a rendezvous with unknown figures in a forest near Frankfurt.

3.1 million pounds paid for "information"

Though not one of the ways a museum typically contributes to its endowment, the paintings' theft and subsequent return did end up as a profitable venture for the Tate. Of the 24 million pounds of insurance, it paid 8 million pounds to Lloyd's and Axa Nordstern for the 19th century paintings' titles, should they ever turn up, and a total of 3.1 million pounds for their safe return through Liebrucks.

Sandy Narine, formerly in charge of the recovery operation at the Tate, however, disputed that any money was given to the lawyers' alleged mafia clients and insisted he had no idea where the money for "information" leading to the paintings' return could end up.

"No money was handed to anyone other than the German lawyer. No one knows what happened afterwards," he said. "Anything else is utter surmise -- it could have gone to his grandmother for all I know."

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