A cautionary tale of paintings floating around the offices of lawyers, in this particular case, the offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing in Glasgow is told in recent headlines over the now recovered Leonardo da Vinci painting, the Madonna with the Yarnwinder, stolen from the Duke of Bucchleuch’s Drumlanrig castle, near Dumfries in August 2003 in a daylight robbery. Several solicitors are accused of being involved in the alleged £4million extortion plot …
The Guardian reports :
• Five on trial over threat to destroy £50m masterpiece
• Theft from duke's castle remains Britain's biggest
By Severin Carrell
guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 March 2010
A solicitor has been accused along with four other men of threatening to destroy a stolen Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece unless they were paid £4.25m, in a conspiracy allegedly hatched in the offices of one of Glasgow's leading law firms.
Marshall Ronald, 53, a lawyer from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, has gone on trial for allegedly helping to organise a plot to extort the money from the Duke of Buccleuch for the safe return of Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder.
The high court in Edinburgh was told today that the conspiracy was organised with the help of two co-accused from Glasgow and two other men from Ormskirk, Lancashire.
The five alleged conspirators are accused of trying to extort £4.25m from the duke and his son Richard, the 10th and current duke, by "menacing them" and "putting them in a state of fear and alarm and apprehension" that the painting would be damaged or destroyed if the ransom was not paid.
Valued at £30m to £50m, the painting was the centrepiece of the then duke's collection at Drumlanrig castle, near Dumfries, reputed to be the UK's most valuable collection in private hands, when it was stolen in August 2003 in a daylight robbery. The heist remains the UK's biggest art theft.
The painting was recovered in October 2007 after police raided the offices of the law firm, HBJ Gateley Wareing, in Glasgow. The duke, a keen fine art collector, had died aged 83 a month before it was recovered.
The court was told that the two alleged thieves, not among the five men on trial, had threatened to kill a young tour guide and brandished an axe at other staff when they took the painting from its protective case.
The casually-dressed men had been posing as tourists, and escaped through a window at Drumlanrig castle, the ancestral home of the dukes of Buccleuch, carrying the Leonardo under their arms.
Alison Russell, then an 18-year-old who had just begun her first season as a tour guide, told the court the two men were the first visitors to arrive at the gallery housing the painting, immediately after the castle opened one morning in late August 2003.They had ignored all the castle's other galleries and her attempt to describe the collection.
Then, she told the court, one of the thieves "put his hand over my mouth and told me I had to lie down on the ground or he would kill me if I didn't".
Sarah Skene, 73, another tour guide, said she heard "a commotion" in the staircase hall housing the painting, and heard a male colleague shouting "please don't do it. Retreat, retreat."
She came in and saw one of the thieves wielding the axe. "He was standing guard on the picture," she said. "After it was done, they disappeared out of the window."
The jury was shown two CCTV images showing the thieves: a thick-set man wearing a white sunhat and a gilet-style waistcoat, and a slimmer man with a baseball cap and dark-coloured casual jacket. Both men walked under the CCTV camera with their faces obscured by their hats.
Currently in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh on temporary loan, the painting, which measures 20in x 14in, shows the Madonna with the infant Jesus and the cross-shaped yarnwinder, a symbol of Christ's crucifixion.
The prosecution claims that in July 2007, nearly four years after the theft, Ronald, the solicitor, had contacted the duke's insurers and their loss adjusters and claimed he could arrange for the painting's return. He allegedly told two undercover police officers posing as the duke's representatives that "volatile individuals" were involved who would "do something very silly" if the police were informed.
Between 10 August 2007 and 4 October 2007, Ronald repeatedly asked the detectives to pay £2m into his own solicitor's firm's account and another £2.25m into a Swiss bank account, the charges said.
During those weeks, Ronald and two co-defendants, Calum Jones, 45, and David Boyce, 63, drafted an agreement at the offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing to organise the safe return of the Leonardo, once the £2m had been paid to Ronald's firm.
The charges allege that in late September and early October 2007, Ronald embezzled £500,000 from his clients' accounts and arranged to take possession of the painting, from persons unknown.
On 29 September, Ronald bought acid-free paper and a folio case, allegedly to transport the painting. Four days later, he allegedly paid £350,000 to another of his co-accused, a builder from Ormskirk called Robert Graham, 57, for the painting.
With the last defendant, John Doyle, 61, also from Ormskirk, Ronald and Graham allegedly took possession of the stolen painting – an offence similar to receiving stolen goods known as "reset" in Scots law – and then took it to Jones and Boyce at their offices in Glasgow.
On 4 October, they allegedly showed the paintings to the two undercover detectives, who were known to them as David Restor and John Craig, demanding a total of £4.25m payable in two large sums for its safe return.
The trial continues and is expected to last for up to six weeks