Scottish Daily Mail

Extraordin­ary yarn of the struck-off lawyer suing duke for £4m over stolen Leonardo painting

- By Jonathan Brockleban­k

IT was an art theft of breathtaki­ng audacity – and one which left the owner of the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiec­e bereft. So attached was the ninth Duke of Buccleuch to the finest and most valuable artistic treasure in his collection that he would often travel with the Madonna of the Yarnwinder between homes.

But the picture was hanging within easy reach in the Staircase Gallery of Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriessh­ire, when it was snatched by two thieves during a guided tour of the family seat in 2003. They had paid £6 each for their tickets – and left with a painting worth up to £50million. The Duke was not a man of meagre resources. His landholdin­gs extended to 270,000 acres and his three stately homes contained artworks by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainsborou­gh. But when the wheelchair­bound peer died, the beloved Leonardo which topped them all was still missing, and it grieved him deeply.

And yet, in a logic- defying legal twist, his son and heir, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, is now being sued for £4.25million by a disgraced lawyer who has taken it into his head that he is the wronged party in the 11-year saga.

Marshall Ronald, who ran his one-man legal outfit from a garage in Lancashire, believes that sum was promised to him for the ‘repatriati­on’ of the painting to its rightful owner, which he says he orchestrat­ed in 2007.

The problem was the cash was promised to him by undercover police officers pretending to represent the Duke – and they saw the situation rather differentl­y.

What the lawyer liked to think of as reward money for reuniting the painting with its owner was viewed by the police as a ransom demand – and they agreed with its terms only as part of a sting operation to secure the painting’s safe return. Mr Ronald had become the penultimat­e link in a chain of people expecting to be paid hard cash for the handover of a world famous work of art.

But he was demanding money from the victims of a crime committed by men wielding axes. Why should the family pay to become the final link in the chain which, in all likelihood, began with the criminals who stole their property in the first place?

Little wonder, perhaps, that lawyers for the Duke sounded a note of astonishme­nt when the case called in the Court of Session in Edinburgh earlier this month.

‘Properly viewed,’ said Andrew Young, QC, ‘what the pursuer [Mr Ronald] i s averring here i s an attempt to extort a sum of money.

‘The pursuer knew the painting was stolen and that the individual­s with possession of the painting had no right to retain it. The pursuer declined to involve the police in the recovery of the painting and sought assurances… that the police would not be informed.’

In which parallel universe, some might wonder, does a lawyer who tried to make a fortune from a stolen painting he paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to secure from shadowy, underworld sources become the victim and the family who suffered the theft the villain of the piece?

On Thursday, a judge gave Mr Ronald the go-ahead to sue the Duke. If his claim suceeds, the stolen Madonna of the Yarnwinder could go down as the case which proves that crime really does pay.

As loss adjuster Mark Dalrymple, who acted for the family, puts it: ‘If you come upon an object, it doesn’t matter what it is, and you learn what that object is and you discover who the owner is and, in this particular case, that it had been stolen, why not give it back?’

Could the answer be that Mr Ronald had more pressing motives than simply doing the right thing? That he saw the stolen Leonardo, rather

as the original thieves had done, as his ticket to enormous wealth? A clue may lie in the fact he raided his legal clients’ accounts to the tune of £500,000 to bankroll the endeavour which he fondly referred to as his ‘art project’.

That resulted in him being struck off at a Solicitors Disciplina­ry Tribunal in 2010.

It was at 11am on August 27, 2003 that the thieves made their move at Drumlanrig Castle. Two minutes later they were speeding off in their getaway car with their prize.

The men had joined a party of visitors for a tour of the castle and waited until it reached the Staircase Gallery. When the rest of the party moved on, they approached guide Alison Russell as if to ask a question.

She later told a court: ‘One of them put his hand over my mouth. He told me I had to lie down on the ground or they would kill me.’

The other one took the picture from the wall, activating an alarm. As it sounded, the two climbed through a window and darted down an outside flight of steps. Last to see them was gardener John Chrystie who recalled there were now three men, one carrying a square object under his arm, sprinting towards their car.

‘When I realised what was happening I was going to have a go at one of them,’ Mr Chrystie said. ‘He pulled an axe from his jacket, a small hand axe. I veered off and just ran up the banking.’

The theft of the 500- year- old masterpiec­e really was that easy. Its return was a more protracted affair. Despite a massive Dumfries and Galloway Constabula­ry investigat­ion, TV appeals on Crimewatch, CCTV footage of the robbery and an e-fit of one of the suspects, the trail soon went cold.

The theft had been executed so efficientl­y that, by the time police arrived, the thieves had already switched cars three miles away.

By the time road blocks were set up and a police helicopter was scrambled, the thieves were in the wind – and today they remain so.

FOUR years later John Doyle became the first known link to the stolen masterpiec­e. He was a partner in a rather low-rent private detective agency in Liverpool which, in 2007, had just launched an internet business called stolenstuf­

Mr Doyle had heard from a pool player in a l ocal pub that the Madonna of the Yarnwinder could be obtained, at a price, through unknown underworld figures. There was someone called Karl and another called J, but they were gobetweens. Those who had the painting remained in the shadows.

The detective told the story to his business partner Robert Graham and, together, the two imagined the blaze of publicity for their internet business if they could return a stolen Leonardo to its rightful owner. And so they became the first known parties to obtain a solid lead on the missing artwork, and the first to put potential personal gain above calling in the police.

The two understood enough about the law, however, to know that paying criminals for stolen goods without telling the police would make them criminals too. So they turned to Mr Graham’s lawyer, Marshall Ronald, for advice.

The wise counsel would have been to walk away. But Mr Ronald was similarly intoxicate­d by the prospect of negotiatin­g the Madonna’s return. He believed it should be possible to negotiate a ‘reward’ with the owners of the painting – leaving the police out, of course.

But could it properly be described as a reward? Or was it in fact a ransom? Mr Dalrymple later gave his opinion in court: ‘There was nothing to negotiate. They had no rights, neither did their clients, nor their clients’ clients.’

Mr Ronald roped in a fourth link to the painting, David Boyce, a partner in respected Glasgow law firm HBJ Gateley Wareing, who he knew only vaguely. But it was he that he now relied on to provide advice in Scots Law on how to bring about the celebrated artwork’s ‘repatriati­on’.

Mr Boyce could also have gone to the police – or, at least, refused to hear any more.

But he brought in a fifth link, partner Calum Jones, to attempt to find a way of returning the painting legally to its owner for cash. It was Mr Jones who advised the English lawyer to contact the loss adjuster working on behalf of the painting’s insurers. That was Mark Dalrymple, who did what all five previous links in the chain had failed to do when they learned about the Leonardo. He called the police.

AS a money-making venture, the return of the painting was now fatally compromise­d. But neither Mr Doyle nor the two private detectives knew it yet.

An undercover policeman using the alias John Craig was appointed to take over from Mr Dalrymple as Mr Ronald’s point of contact and, not surprising­ly, negotiatio­ns over the reward progressed very smoothly.

The sum of £2million was soon agreed, which prompted the naturally suspicious Mr Graham to request a meeting with ‘Mr Craig’ to satisfy himself he was not, as he allegedly put it, ‘the chief of police’.

The sit-down took place at a pub in Euston, London, and Mr Ronald and the undercover policeman were the first to arrive. Making full use of his time before Mr Graham showed up, Mr Ronald negotiated a secret side deal which would net him an extra £2.25million to be paid directly into a Swiss bank account.

His private detective associates were ‘ idiots’, he reasoned, and besides, he was the one taking all the risks.

Mr Ronald signally failed to realise the only reason the extraordin­ary demand was agreed to was because he dealing with the police. The numbers were not real.

He claims now that the 10th Duke of Buccleuch had provided a written letter of authority confirming that Mr Craig acted as his agent in negotiatio­ns on the painting’s return.

But, of course, the police had asked the Duke to provide that letter, and John Craig was an alias. The letter referred to a man who did not exist. In his communicat­ions with ‘ Mr Craig’, Ronald made things worse for himself by saying he was dealing with ‘volatile’ people who might damage the painting if the reward remained unpaid. That was interprete­d as a threat.

In the meantime, with no ready cash to pay to the criminals in exchange for the painting, Mr Ronald raided his law firm’s client account for the money, confident that he would be able to replace it within weeks.

He gave £350,000 to Mr Graham who stuffed it in the boot of his Jaguar and drove to meet an underworld contact in a Liverpool car park.

There, he handed over the cash and, some hours l ater, a man returned with the masterpiec­e.

At that stage, another substantia­l sum was passed to the contact and the operation was complete.

When he learned of the handover, Mr Ronald called ‘Mr Craig’.

‘The Lady is on her way home,’ he whispered, comically betraying the extent to which he had been seduced by the cloak-and- dagger dealings.

The Lady was, in fact, bound for the offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing where Messrs Ronald, Graham and Doyle expected to be hailed as heroes at the press conference they intended to call. They would be disappoint­ed.

Just as the Leonardo was verified as genuine in the boardroom of the legal firm, 14 police officers marched in and arrested everyone.

Ultimately, charges against the English lawyer and the two private detectives of holding the painting for ransom were found not proven in the High Court in Edinburgh. Glasgow lawyers Mr Boyce and Mr Jones were found not guilty of being part of a conspiracy.

No one, then, has been brought to justice over the art heist which robbed an ageing peer of his pride and joy in his final years.

And yet, reputation in tatters, it is the lawyer who sought to profit f rom the theft to the tune of £4.25million who now seeks justice in the civil courts.


 ??  ?? Masterpiec­e: Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was snatched from Drumlanrig Castle
Masterpiec­e: Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was snatched from Drumlanrig Castle
 ??  ?? Tangled web: Lesley Donald, left, who is suing the Duke of Buccleuch. Right, a CCTV image of one of the two raiders
Tangled web: Lesley Donald, left, who is suing the Duke of Buccleuch. Right, a CCTV image of one of the two raiders
 ??  ?? Probe: The current Duke of Buccleuch with police after theft
Probe: The current Duke of Buccleuch with police after theft
 ??  ??

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