The Purloined Painting

It's every millionaire's worst nightmare: waking up to find a home stripped of priceless artwork overnight. If that fails to arouse your sympathy, consider that it happens regularly in museums, too; treasures worth billions of dollars are swiped every year in audacious heists from public galleries around the world.

Thanks to Charles Hill, there's hope of getting them back. The former head of Scotland Yard's art-and-antiques squad is one of a handful of specialists feared in the insular criminal underworld of stolen art. Bookish and genial, Hill (who won't permit his picture to be published so he can remain anonymous to the thieves) made a name for himself when he recovered Edvard Munch's well-known painting "The Scream" after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo nearly a decade ago. Since then he has returned works by Vermeer, Goya and Turner to their rightful owners. So when a $50 million 16th-century sculpted saltcellar went missing from Vienna's art-history museum last month, officials knew right away whom to call.

Hill has his work cut out for him. Most stolen art is never recovered, not least because it's a low priority for overstretched police forces around the world. In Britain, Scotland Yard's art-and-antiques division has a skeletal staff. "The problem is that art crime is international, and there's no international body you can turn to," says Hill. "Interpol is a message-switching system. You pass a message on to Interpol, and they pass the message on to someone else. When people say, 'Interpol's on the job,' that means absolutely nothing. Which leaves a big gap in the market for me." What's more, art thieves are generally savvier and better educated than other kinds of criminals, and their transgressions confer high status among the lawless. "It's considered a high-class crime in the criminal's mind," says Hill. "It's a sort of fashionable accouterment for a criminal who starts doing hubcaps when he's young and then moves up the chain."

Often paintings end up being used as collateral for loans or in drug deals. Thefts tend to be committed not by individuals but by groups. And after nearly three decades in the business, Hill has crossed paths with most of the groups involved. In many cases he knows as soon as he sees the crime scene exactly who's involved. "I don't look at the forensic side; the police will do that," he says. "I just look at what happened and think, 'Why did the thieves go for that?' And 'Are there any indications that these are people I know because of the kind of mess they make on the way in and out?' The techniques, the style of operation, everything, will point at [one group or family]."

Once stolen, valuable and easily recognizable works of art can be tricky to offload. For Hill, that's a blessing. "What happens with these sorts of things is that they get released very quickly into a chain," he says. "I can essentially lay in wait for them because I know the direction that they'll travel." Titian's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" had quite a colorful journey after it was stolen in 1995 from Longleat, the Marquess of Bath's estate. As Hill tells it, the Irish Gypsy family who had stolen it handed the painting over to another family, who then gave it, by way of apology, to a sports promoter they had shot, as he lay recovering from his wounds in a hospital. "They said, 'I'm sorry, but would you like a nice picture of Mary, Jesus and Joseph to soothe your troubles?' " Hill says with a grin. "So [the sports promoter] took it, and after a while realized what a dumb thing that was to do. He got rid of it, and that's when I was spoken to about it."

Hill's successes have also sparked controversy. The recovery of the Titian was a seven-year project that culminated in the handover of the painting, wrapped in a plastic bag, at a London bus stop last August. A $163,000 reward was given to a middleman, who, British newspapers alleged, may have made payments to the thieves themselves. Hill says he goes to great lengths to make sure that reward money does not end up in the hands of criminals, but admits that the line between paying a reward and a ransom is a gray area he assesses on a case-by-case basis.

Hill's appreciation for fine art stems back to his childhood in England, when his mother took him to the galleries. The moment he holds a recovered masterpiece in his hands, "it sends a frisson down your spine," he says. "There are certain things that essentially belong to us all, although they may be in the National Museum in Oslo, or at Longleat. When they're stolen, all of us are denied them." Not for long, if Charles Hill is on the case.