Unsolved Mysteries: The £4m Art Theft that wasn’t a Theft

A sophisticated theft from the Whitworth took some strange turns back in 2003.

9am, Monday 28th April 2003

When staff at Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road came into work on a slightly drizzly Monday morning, they probably weren’t expecting to be at the centre of a rather interesting and perplexing mystery, one which is still unsolved over 17 years later.

As they came into the office, getting ready for another week of graft, they’d have seen a flurry of police outside the main entrance, smashed up steel doors round the back and three empty spaces where artwork totalling £4m was on display.

It was only a few minutes later however that the pieces of art were recovered – found in an old toilet on the other side of Whitworth Park, neatly rolled up and carefully placed in a (now) soggy cardboard tube.

How were police so quick to find the pieces of art?

Well, an anonymous tip early in the morning highlighted staff not only to the theft, but to where the artworks had been abandoned a few days earlier.

Who was the anonymous person who gave the tip? Why were they stolen? Well, this is obviously an ‘Unsolved Mystery’ so we still don’t have a clue…

Sometime after 9pm, Saturday 26th April

Approaching the rear of Whitworth Art Gallery, the space is perfect for a robbery. It’s dark, secluded and completely off the main road so the chances of anybody seeing you acting suspiciously is very limited indeed.

The management at the building, along with the police, were happy with the security that they had set up to protect the priceless treasures inside. The outside of the building benefits from a CCTV camera system, alarms and regular roving patrols, all regularly checked twice a year by experts at the GMP.

The rear doors to the Grade-II listed building though, are “woefully” inadequate – with only a steel covering keeping potential thieves out – and one that was quickly forced open by the person or persons looking to make a quick buck on some valuable pieces of art.

Credit: ITN

Once inside they continued to the nearby Margaret Pilkington Room without any of the security guards or CCTV cameras noticing them, and they proceeded to carefully screw 3 paintings off the wall.

They’d chosen paintings from established artists that would fetch them a pretty penny and hopefully, make the transactions smoother and easier. They were ‘The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (The Ramparts of Paris)‘ by Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Tahitian Landscape‘ by Paul Gauguin, and ‘Poverty (Les Misérables)‘ by Pablo Picasso. In total, the value of the 3 paintings came to a cool £4 million.

‘The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (The Ramparts of Paris)’ – Vincent Van Gogh

Extracting the paintings from the wall, frames included, the person or persons quickly retreated back through the rear doors and disappeared into the pitch-black evening mist of Whitworth Park.

 

9:46am, Monday 28th April 2003

After the anonymous tip-off, police constables trundled over the soggy ground of the park, making their way to a disused public toilet just down near the Moss Lane East end. The small building has certainly seen better days, covered in graffiti and stinking of piss, but as the officers walked around the structure – their tip-off is correct as they notice a large, damp cardboard tube just casually propped up against the wall.

But that’s not all they find. Attached to the tube is a note, with letters and in some places whole words washed off by the rain, which says; “The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security.

So, case solved then. Let’s get those paintings back on the wall and crack on with our lives, right? Well, not exactly. This was still an elaborate and daring theft, and after a couple of nights out in the rain, the paintings themselves were damaged, perhaps irrevocably.

 

14:00, Tuesday 21st July 2020

Just over 17 years later and the case of the ‘theft that wasn’t a theft’ is still completely unsolved, with nobody knowing who did it, why they did it and quite why they returned the paintings to the gallery so quickly.

Many have assumed over the years that the note left with the paintings, and the anonymous tip to the staff at the gallery were a way of potentially ‘undoing’ the robbery, perhaps after the persons involved found out that they were pretty much impossible to sell without being caught.

Poverty, Pablo Picasso (1903)

This is called a ‘Boomerang‘ art theft, and has happened at many galleries all over the world.

Valuable paintings are stolen, only to be found days, weeks or months later – often within the gallery grounds or on one occasion – a stolen Gustav Klimt painting that found its way within the walls of an Italian gallery over 20 years later.

A key reason for this so-called ‘boomerang’ effect is panic, and the difficult task of actually getting rid of stolen art. This is about as difficult as you might think it is, because once an artwork has been classified as ‘stolen’ – your list of buyers diminishes massively.

You could always sell it to another criminal – perhaps for them to keep on the wall of their evil lair, but you’re not going to get anywhere near as much as the ‘valued’ price should you be selling it legitimately at Sotheby’s.

Was this the case with the Whitworth Art Gallery theft of 2003? Most likely yes. Once the person or persons left the gallery with the art, they’d have found it almost impossible to sell, and so the only choice in the matter would be to ‘return’ the artwork and make up some cock-and-bull story about wanting to highlight the “woeful security” of the place.

Or maybe this wasn’t the case at all. Perhaps the people involved in the theft had themselves a buyer, but one of the parties grew a conscience and wanted to return the pieces to their rightful owners?

It remains to this day a true Unsolved Mystery, one which we are unlikely to find any answers to – especially 17 years later.

If you do have any information though, and it has been eating away at your conscience for this whole time, speak to your local constabulary.

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