Friday, 22 January 2010

Bigwigs in the frame for art theft

The theft of a valuable painting from a private library during a presentation by a former bishop has left an audience of 200 distinguished Edinburgh citizens among the suspects for the crime.

In a case worthy of Isabel Dalhousie, the dignified Morningside sleuth created by Alexander McCall Smith, a painting entitled I Cannae Hear You, by the Borders artist Tom Scott was taken from the Signet Library, probably on January 1. To add a certain piquancy to the case, the theft occurred during an event to commemorate the Protestant Reformation, the only occasion on which the building was occupied during the New Year’s holiday until the library re-opened the following week.

The theft of the £4,000 water colour, by a relatively unknown artist who died a century ago, has mystified and saddened members of The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, who own the library, a magnificent classical building in Parliament Square.

“We cannot think of any other occasion when the painting could have disappeared,” said Robert Pirrie, chief executive of the society. “We’re very disappointed that our hospitality should be abused. It’s a private building but we open it up to the city as often as he can.”

Grizzled detectives from Lothian and Borders police have been left scratching their heads at the complexity of the case, as they ponder crucial questions of means, motive and opportunity.

With no sign of forced entry, it seems probable that the painting was removed during or after an event billed as The New Year Conversation. At the heart of police deliberations is the question: what kind of evil genius would target a discussion designed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin and John Knox, the grandaddies of Scottish Presbyterianism?

The event itself featured the Most Reverend Richard Holloway, the former primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Harry Reid, the some time editor of the Glasgow Herald, in a discussion chaired by Catherine Lockerbie, who was until recently the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. While a police source said that all three had been eliminated as suspects, audience members may yet have their collars felt.

One theory suggests that a thief entered the building during the event and made off with the watercolour, which hangs in an attractive 2ft gilt frame. A picture hook was left at the scene of the crime.

The country’s leading salerooms have since been made aware of the theft in case someone attempts to sell the painting through them.

“We have no idea why this painting was taken, but doubt very much that it was targeted. It’s not a very well known painting, but it is also not very big. I suppose it’s on the outer limits of something you could try to carry, although you’d still be taking a risk that nobody would notice,” said Mr Pirrie.

A spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police said: “This has been an opportunistic theft of a relatively expensive piece of artwork and we are eager to ensure it is returned to the library. If anyone has information that can assist with our investigation they are asked to contact the police immediately.

The stunning interior of the Signet Library has been described as “a classical cathedral” and was designed in 1813 by William Stark.

The cupola painting in the centre of the Upper Library depicts Apollo and the Muses, accompanied by Burns, Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, Virgil, Cicero, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Livy, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, Newton, Bacon, Napier and Adam Smith — all bearing silent witness to a perplexing crime.

This appeared last Saturday, and made a few people chuckle, so I've stuck it here. The painting has been recovered, and I hope to have a follow up piece soonish.

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