Press Release

Consent Order enables Tate to put documents relating to stolen Turners in public domain

Consent Order enables Tate to put documents relating to stolen Turners in public domain: Press related to past Tate news.

The file of documents relating to the theft and recovery of two paintings by JMW Turner in Tate’s Collection: Shade & Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge (Shade & Darkness) and Light & Colour (Goethe’s theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (Light & Colour), will be made available at Tate’s Research Centre for the first time from today. The documents include the Court Order authorising the transaction and all relevant supporting documentation.

The successful recovery operation meant that Tate recovered the paintings for the benefit of the nation. Having made payments of £8 million to the insurers for title to the paintings and £3.5 million for the recovery, Tate recovered property that had a value (by 2002) of approximately £35 million as well as approximately £23 million for the benefit of the Collection.

Tate’s Director, Sir Nicholas Serota said:

Now that the confidentiality provision in the Court Order has been lifted, we are pleased to be able to make these documents available to the public at Tate Britain. The documents, which could not be released at the time of the recovery, set out the arrangements and conditions under which the paintings were recovered. They tell the story of a recovery operation which is one of the most extraordinary episodes in Tate’s history.

Editor notes

Background Information

Two paintings by JMW Turner in Tate's Collection: Shade & Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge (Shade & Darkness) and Light & Colour (Goethe's theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (Light & Colour), 1843, were stolen on 28 July 1994 from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt whilst on loan to an exhibition entitled 'Goethe and the Visual Arts'. A painting, Nebelschwaden, by Caspar David Friedrich, belonging to the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, was also stolen. The three thieves and the associated driver who carried out the theft were arrested in 1995 and convicted in Germany in 1999.

As a condition of the loan from Tate, the paintings were insured by the Schirn Kunsthalle for £12 million each. Following the theft, Tate made a claim and received the full insured sum of £24 million in April 1995. In accordance with normal procedure, title to the paintings passed to the insurers, subject to an agreement that Tate should have first option to re-purchase the paintings in the event of recovery for £24 million plus interest.

By 1998 Tate had become increasingly concerned that the paintings had not been recovered and as a result a large amount of money was lying in a reserve fund rather than being applied for any benefit. An approach was made to Geoffrey Robinson, then Paymaster General, and he helped devise and then negotiate an arrangement whereby Tate bought back the insurers' title for £8 million in 1998. This was approved by the Charity Commission, the Treasury and the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

The initial attempts to recover the stolen paintings

Between July 1994 and 1998, attempts to recover the stolen paintings were handled by insurers and loss adjusters in cooperation with both German and British police authorities. From late 1998 onwards, Tate, acting with the advice of the Metropolitan Police and loss adjusters, took over responsibility for the recovery operation.

The recovery operation and the involvement of the relevant authorities

During the summer of 1999 it became apparent that there was the potential for recovering the paintings, contact having been made (by the Metropolitan Police through the German authorities) with a lawyer and notary in Germany, Edgar Liebrucks, who indicated that he might be able to assist in the recovery of the paintings. Edgar Liebrucks claimed to be in direct contact with those who now had possession of the paintings. He believed that he could facilitate the return of the stolen paintings.

Due to the nature of the transaction being proposed, Tate consulted extensively with the relevant authorities. These included: the German prosecuting authorities, the Metropolitan Police, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. All these authorities were satisfied as to the legality of the proposed transaction because of the clear intention of the German prosecutors to recover the monies paid and to prosecute offenders. The Metropolitan Police viewed the proposed transaction as funding "for a German law enforcement operation" to recover the paintings. Tate also consulted with the Charity Commission, who were satisfied that, subject to Court approval, the proposed transaction was in the best interests of Tate and was appropriate.

Tate applied to the High Court for final authority to enter into the transaction. The hearing was held 'in camera' in order not to prejudice ongoing operations. The Trustees of Tate, as the Court acknowledged when authorising the payments by Tate, were under a legal obligation to preserve and recover trust property. Accordingly, subject to the recovery being legal (as the Court ruled it was) and the risks of the operation being proportionate, Tate's Trustees were under a positive legal obligation to enter this transaction.

Payments made by Tate

Tate made payments to Edgar Liebrucks and was responsible for the expenses of those helping in the investigation. It was acknowledged by the Court, and Tate, that the payments to be made by Tate to Edgar Liebrucks might well be passed on to others, including those holding the paintings. However, once Tate had paid the money to Edgar Liebrucks, it had no control over that money. Tate does not know to whom Mr Liebrucks made payment of the monies he had received from Tate. The relationship between Edgar Liebrucks and his contacts was a matter for the German authorities and regulators to pursue, not Tate.

The possibility that Tate's payments to Edgar Liebrucks might be paid in whole or in part to those then criminally holding the paintings, if this did occur, was an unavoidable and inevitable consequence of recovery operations of this nature. All the authorities (including the Court) and Tate were in agreement that the possibility of this happening neither rendered the transaction illegal nor meant that the transaction as a whole should not proceed. Indeed, the Court order even went so far as to allow for payments to be made to those holding the paintings; although in the event Tate only made payments to Edgar Liebrucks.

Tate's announcement of the recovery of the two stolen paintings in December 2002

In December 2002, following the recovery of the second stolen painting (the first stolen painting having been recovered in 2000), Tate stated that £3.5 million had been spent in the recovery of the paintings. At that time, due to the ongoing attempts to recover another painting by Caspar David Friedrich, belonging to the Kunsthalle Hamburg, stolen at the same time as the two Turner paintings were stolen, Tate was not at liberty to provide details of the recovery operation and all statements were severely constrained by the need to avoid further publicity of the nature of the operation. The Friedrich painting was successfully recovered in August 2003.

Works currently on view in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain

The two paintings, Shade & Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge ("Shade & Darkness") and Light & Colour (Goethe's theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis ("Light & Colour"), are now on display for current and future public enjoyment in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, having been away from view for eight years.