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Exclusive: Police recover stolen art

Three paintings linked to the theft of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of art from museums in the 1990s have been found thanks to an eagle-eyed curator.

The recovery of the three artworks believed to be worth more than £200,000 followed information passed on to Lothian and Borders and Strathclyde Police forces.

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The discoveries have kick-started a police investigation into allegations which came to light 15 years ago that art from Glasgow’s taxpayer-funded galleries and museums were being sold on the black market.

The paintings, Wooded Landscape With Figures by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a landscape by the Scottish post-impressionist painter Samuel Peploe and another work by the Italian Renaissance painter Federico Barocci are now being held by Glasgow Museums.

All three are understood to have been either sold or attempted to be sold by one source.

Suspicions arose after the Corot was spotted for sale in a Lyon and Turnbull Auctioneers catalogue by one of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s senior curators in November.

Lothian and Borders Police investigated and removed it from the Edinburgh auctioneers, who revealed they had sold a Peploe from the same source. The Peploe bought by Ewan Munday Gallery in Glasgow was seized by Strathclyde Police on December 21.

A further investigation at the source’s home revealed the Barocci, which was recovered by police on Friday.

A confidential auditors’ report in 1996 revealed concerns over the alleged thefts from Glasgow Museums which they said “appear to be well founded”.

Paintings also said to have been stolen included a woodland scene by the English Romantic painter John Constable and Salmon Fishers by one of Scotland’s finest painters, William McTaggart.

The probe focused on Kelvingrove Art Galleries, the Museum of Transport, and Maryhill stores. The auditors said at the time that the arrangements for recording artefacts and their locations were unsatisfactory.

An inquiry was launched by Glasgow City Council after an anonymous letter spoke of paintings “being taken by at least one member of staff and sold on the black market” in an operation that has been going on for “at least the past six years”.

A Lothian and Borders Police source confirmed yesterday that two paintings had been uncovered but that Strathclyde Police had confirmed it formed part of a “bigger investigation and that there may potentially be more pieces of art that can be uncovered as a result of the inquiries”.

A spokesman for Glasgow Life, the arm’s length agency running civic museums, libraries and leisure centres, said: “We’re very grateful for the work of the police in bringing these paintings home to Glasgow. However, every praise should be reserved for our senior curator whose keen eye illuminated the fact that the stolen Corot was up for auction. Without his wealth of knowledge and expertise, the works may still have been hanging on elsewhere.

“We will continue to work with UK police forces to ensure any stolen item is returned to Glasgow and we are grateful to the galleries who have readily assisted in this matter.”

Details of the alleged thefts from Glasgow Museums were an embarrassment to senior management, which had been in dispute with unions over plans to cut nearly 60 jobs, at the time.

The anonymous letter which triggered the inquiry said: “The ability for staff members not being detected lies in the fact there is apparently no proper documentation of what artefacts are in store and the availability of unlimited access by staff members to storerooms.

“I have heard of at least 10 paintings worth hundreds of thousands of pounds being taken over the past few years. My source of information is from one employee of the council. He has foolishly bragged about his involvement in the pilfering.

“The auditors had said the arrangements for recording artefacts and their locations was unsatis- factory. The arrangement for access to stores are also unsatisfactory and of concern. It is the auditors’ view that the present arrangements leave the collection vulnerable to theft.

“The inquiries confirm that a number of items cannot be accounted for and the full extent of the problem is not known.”

Strathclyde Police said: “We can confirm we are currently investigating and inquiries are ongoing into this matter.”

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