A Conversation with Charles Hill

A Conversation with Charles Hill
Art theft is big business. And, as proven by the recent heist of some $5 million worth of objects at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, it’s often an inside job. For some perspective on this international racket, we checked in with veteran U.K. detective Charles Hill.

During his year and a half as head of Scotland Yard’s fabled Art Squad, Hill recovered, among other works, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994. To retrieve the painting, he went undercover, often in disguise. His recovery of the Munch was the subject of Edward Dolnick’s 2005 book The Rescue Artist.

Since he became a free agent in 2002, the 59-year-old Hill has hunted down, among other treasures, an early Titian painting, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which was stolen in 1995 from the stately Longleat House in Wiltshire, England.

Is it true that only about 10 percent of stolen art is recovered?

It’s a low percentage. The bulk of the art is not immediately identifiable, particularly when dealers get hold of it and move it through different countries. As a result, you’re unlikely to know that a bronze donated by a benefactor to a university museum is the same work that had been stolen three or four years before from a manor house in England.

You’ve been outspoken about trying to dispel the prevailing notion of a Dr. No who squirrels away masterpieces in his secret study.

There’s bound to be somebody like that out there, but I’ve never met him, and I don’t think any one else has, either.

Do you think we’re seeing a more aggressive style of theft recently?

Yes, because different people are involved for different reasons. Art theft can be related to drug trafficking and other crimes. The global economy and easier movement around Europe has meant that the criminal underworld has managed to thrive. The people who stole the Munch paintings from the artist’s museum in Oslo two years ago were trying to do a favor for criminals in the ranks above them.

There’s something romantic about great paintings that have been missing for so long. I’m thinking of the works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which were stolen in a spectacular heist in 1990. A lot of people, including you, are eager to recover these paintings. Do you think it’s possible?

I honestly believe—though maybe it’s hope rather than belief—that someday I’m going to get the Gardner works back.

Can you tell me about the case you’re working on now?

Three years ago, some gold boxes worth many millions were stolen in a midnight robbery of Waddesdon Manor, the former Rothschild family home in Buckinghamshire, England, which is now a museum. I’ve been talking to the uncle of one of the suspects, who is in prison. He wants to get the objects back to clear his family’s name. He’s been very cooperative with me, though not so much with the police.

How long have you been working on your own?

I’ve been independent for almost five years, but I don’t work undercover anymore.

Do you miss it?

No. It’s dangerous.

It seems glamorous.

Well, it’s just another burden I don’t need ... working by duplicity. These days I play it straight. I give security advice to collectors with large homes. I tell them fire is the main threat; theft is secondary. You don’t want to nail your paintings to the wall so hard that you can’t get them out if the house starts burning. And I tell them that threats from within, from family and staff, are more likely than thefts from outside.

The recent thefts from the Hermitage were an inside job.

Yes, there’s a category of people who steal from their own institution—the real money to be made in art crime comes from deception, fraud or thefts by people on the inside. People just take things, and that includes government officials taking prints right off their office walls when they retire.

Which have better security, American museums or European museums?

At the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the guards are armed. That’s a big disincentive to anybody thinking of taking something off the walls. In Europe, by and large security guards are not armed. It’s fairly lax.

Is the best moment when you unwrap a stolen painting and say, “Eureka!”?

No, it’s when I see it back on its owner’s wall. As I grow older, I find that more satisfying than the chase and kill. I’m glad of that. I think it means I’m maturing a bit.