Arts column: The Lowry thefts were no Thomas Crowne Affair

WHEN a haul of LS Lowry paintings were uncovered during Merseyside police raids last July it brought to an end a four-year search for the stolen works.

Snatched from Cheshire art dealer Ivan Aird in 2007, they were found divided between a Halewood drugs den and a Bootle lock-up and included The Viaduct, which once hung above Sir Alec Guinness’s fireplace.

Last week, two men pleaded guilty to several charges including handling stolen goods, following the 2009 trial of a 23-year-old convicted of robbery. Three other men involved in the break-in are still at large.

The thieves broke into the dealer’s home and held a knife to the neck of his wife and two-year-old daughter. Not exactly the way Thomas Crowne would have handled the matter, but a good example of how art thefts are rarely carried out at the whim of sensitive billionaires with a burning desire for an Old Master on their office walls. Yet that’s how we imagine them – a gang of devilishly handsome thieves dressed in black catsuits, descending through a gallery skylight on a wire, somersaulting a web of infra red lasers and faffing about with a special contact lens and some iris-recognition software before handing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers over to a mysterious tycoon who has paid generously for their trouble.

He – because it always seems to be a man in the films – then hangs it proudly alongside stolen Picassos, Rembrandts and Caravaggios, but intriguingly never a Tracey Emin, in a secret, lead-lined room where he alone will be able to admire it.

Or there’s the plucky have-a-go thief – as portrayed by Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn in the 1966 film How to Steal a Million – sneaking past security by a combination of luck, clever tricks and a boomerang, with just enough time to fall in love along the way.

The reality is sadly far less romantic.

Instead, works of art are usually stolen by people connected with local crime rings, who have little interest in what they are taking.

Movie art thieves are just as immoral as the real thing, removing works from the enjoyment of all, but at least they do it with panache. And, most of all, they genuinely appreciate the pieces they steal.

In real life however, the thieves just care for what their haul can fetch them, and so are reckless with their precious cargo.

Paintings are often cut from their frames (as in the theft of Rembrandt’s The Storm of the Sea in Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in 1990), making them more vulnerable to destruction.

Sadly, all the Merseyside Lowrys were damaged after being left in cold or damp conditions. One of the Salford painter’s more famous pieces – Tanker Entering The Tyne – is feared to be beyond repair.

Just like drugs and organised crime, art heists are a global business – the international Art Loss Register lists 170,000 pieces missing across the world. Even once works are recovered they are not safe – the painting Jacob de Gheyn III (1632) has been dubbed “the takeaway Rembrandt” after being stolen four times.

The bad luck for thieves, and the silver lining for the rest of us, is that although art hauls are worth millions (£1.7m in the case of the Lowrys), they are often far too famous to sell on.