The Daily Telegraph
A cracking art heist story that’s perfect for Hollywood
Every so often, a documentary with an unpromising title turns out to be a cracker. So it was with Stolen: Catching the Art Thieves (BBC Two), which played out in the manner of a glossy thriller.
It was the story of a 1994 heist at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Germany. The targets were two JMW Turner paintings – Light and Colour and Shade and Darkness (and a third work by Caspar David Friedrich, but the programme wasn’t concerned with that one). A thief hid in the museum until after dark, then opened the door and let in an accomplice; they tied up the lone guard on duty, and escaped with the paintings in a white Ford Transit van. Isn’t it always a white Ford Transit van?
The Turners were on loan from the Tate, and what followed was an utterly absorbing tale of the Tate’s efforts to get them back. The cast of characters could have come straight out of a Hollywood film, including Rocky, a “tough guy” undercover agent for Scotland Yard whose demeanour made it very easy for him to pose as a European criminal. “He was not unruly,” said Sandy Nairne, the debonair former deputy director of the Tate, “but he had his own ways of working.”
Nairne’s role in this saga was quite something. Just like it happens in the films, he was contacted over the telephone by a man who claimed to have the paintings, and ordered him to attend a rendezvous at Paddington Station. A Metropolitan Police officer went in Nairne’s place, while Nairne hung out of his office window to give the impression during phone calls that he was en route. The man turned out to be a chancer, rather than a criminal mastermind: his disguise was a bin liner with two eye-holes cut in it.
I shan’t ruin the rest for you if you haven’t seen it, but also in the mix were a Yugoslav crime kingpin, a colourful lawyer, a clandestine meeting in a forest, and a disgruntled Rocky quitting to sail his yacht around New Zealand. The film was helped enormously by its access to phone recordings and footage from the time. This may have been a case of “artnapping” rather than kidnapping, but the stakes were high and the methods of investigation similar – even down to a demand for “proof of life”, which in this instance meant Polaroids of the paintings, rather than a kidnap victim holding up a copy of today’s paper.
One thing you can always guarantee with a Simon Reeve series: he’ll pack a lot in. In the first episode of Simon Reeve’s South America (BBC Two), he visited Venezuela, French Guiana and Suriname. He flew in a small plane with a convicted cocaine smuggler, joined (briefly) the French Foreign Legion, explored the ecosystem of a billion-year old mountain and discussed the dietary habits of sloths.
It began with Reeve emerging from a tent. No Bear Grylls-style hotel stays for him. Reeve’s programmes are hard to categorise: he covers the environment, politics and social anthropology. He has an easy way with people, and is enthusiastic but not annoyingly so. When he says, “Oh my goodness, the most incredible views!” as he gazes down on Venezuela from above the clouds, it’s entirely the correct reaction.
Some of the situations he gets himself into are possibly a bit dicey, but Reeve doesn’t over-egg it. In Suriname, he spends time with a popular politician called Ronnie Brunswijk, whose CV could be described as colourful. Brunswijk, now the country’s vice president, used to be a footballer, and during one match was accused of threatening an opposing player with a handgun (he denies this). His methods of appealing to the electorate include reportedly flying his helicopter over a village and showering it with cash. He is reputed to have 50 children.
His wealth, he told Reeve, derived from his skills in panning for gold. At which point, Reeve ventured: “The Dutch government says you traffic cocaine to Europe.” (Brunswijk denied it, though a Dutch court convicted him in absentia.) It takes a certain courage to introduce this kind of line into a conversation.
Things were more mellow when we got to the sloths, at a centre where they are rescued from deforested areas, rehabilitated and released. The woman who ran the place explained that these animals don’t deserve their reputation for being a bit dim – in fact, they’re smart because they know how to conserve energy. And did you know they lose a third of their weight every time they poop? That’s another thing about Reeve programmes: they tell you many things you probably didn’t know.
Stolen: Catching the Art Thieves ★★★★★
Simon Reeve’s South America ★★★★