It was one of the most audacious capers of recent times. Two men walked into Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland, overpowered a security guard and grabbed one of the world’s most valuable paintings from the wall.
As sirens sounded and the pair climbed out of the window with Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, tourists gaped. “Don’t worry love, we’re the police. This is just practice,” one of the pair said.
But of course it wasn’t. This was just the start of the UK’s biggest art heist.
And now a city law firm has been linked to what has been dubbed the ‘Da Vinci plot’.
Two partners from the Glasgow branch of HBJ Gateley Wareing – formed from the merger of Birmingham law firm Gateley Wareing and Scottish company Henderson Boyd Jackson last year – are in the dock, charged with trying to extort money for the safe return of the masterpiece.
The painting was recovered after a police raid on HBJ’s office in Glasgow, and now property partner David Boyce and insolvency partner Calum Jones are alleged to have been part of a criminal gang which demanded a £4.25 million ransom for the painting. Both pleaded not guilty.
They have both since left HBJ, and the company said it had no plans to replace them. Boyce and Jones were among five men – including another lawyer – arrested for the plot to hold the painting hostage after it was stolen in 2003.
They are appearing along with fellow solicitor Marshall Ronald, who had his Lancashire practice Marshall Solicitors shut down after an investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. HBJ, which has its largest office in Birmingham, is one of the top 60 UK legal firms.
Malcolm McPherson, the senior partner at HBJ in Scotland, said the two partners had only been with the office for a matter of weeks before they were arrested. “The project had obviously starte long before that, and the painting was with us for a grand total of 20 minutes,” he said.
The raid on the HBJ office in Glasgow came at the end of a long term international investigation involving forces from across the world.
The Scotland side of the investigation involved officers from the Dumfries and Galloway and Strathclyde forces, as well as the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
Detectives had previously said they thought the painting had been stolen by drug traffickers to be used as collateral for deals. They were stunned to find it in the offices of a respectable law firm.
After the painting was found, police brought in Michael Clarke, the director of the National Gallery of Scotland and the country’s top art expert. He examined the picture at a secret location before confirming it was the real deal.
Sadly the recovery of the painting came too late for its owner, the ninth Duke of Buccleuch – one of the UK’s richest men. Just a month before the painting was found by the police raid, the Duke died. The picture had been in his family’s possession at their ancestral home for more than 200 years. Although the value of the painting had been estimated at up to £80 million, the Duke is thought to have received just £3 million in compensation as his collection had been underinsured.
The Madonna of the Yarnwinder was painted in 1501 by Da Vinci. It was believed to have been commissioned for Louis XII of France, and is considered one of his greatest works.
It is one of just a few paintings that have actually been confirmed as being by the great artist, along with world famous works like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper
The painting, which depicts the Madonna and baby Jesus with a cross-shaped yarnwinder, was considered so important that it was placed on the FBI’s top ten most-wanted list of stolen artworks.