Detective who found Munch’s Scream and Irish Vermeer stolen by Martin Cahill dies at 73
Charles Hill’s work led to recovery of masterpieces including Russborough raid painting
Charles Hill, pictured circa 2007, was a Scotland Yard detective whose investigations, often undercover, led to the recovery of Munch’s masterpiece The Scream as well as stolen paintings by Vermeer and Titian. Photograph: Richard Ansett via New York Times
Charles Hill, a Scotland Yard detective, stood inside a house in Norway and beheld the artistic treasure he had been searching for: The Scream, Edvard Munch’s 1893 masterpiece. “I unwrapped it from a blue sheet and saw first where Munch had started painting on what’s now on the back,” Hill told Garage, a fashion and art magazine, in 2018. “The picture is painted on heavy cardboard, which surprised me, but I turned it over and there was the famous image, including the original splatter marks where Munch blew out a candle on it. I said something like ‘holy mackerel’ while I admired it.”
It was May 1994, three months after two thieves had propped a ladder against the National Gallery in Oslo, stolen The Scream and left behind a taunting note that said, “Thanks for the poor security.” Norwegian police asked for help from Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit, which assigned Hill, a leading specialist in recovering purloined art.
“He was this crazy hybrid – an art cop – which doesn’t really go together,” says Edward Dolnick, author of The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece, a 2005 account of the Scream case. “He had this grand taste for old masters but loved to tell stories of chasing a mugger around the corner.”
Hill saw the gangster take Goya’s Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate out of a sports bag in the boot of his car and unroll it like a cheap poster
Hill posed as “Christopher Roberts”, a blustery, fast-talking representative of the J Paul Getty Museum (which was in on the ruse), willing to pay steeply for The Scream. Working with other detectives from the art and antiques unit, Hill tracked down an art dealer who had connections to the thieves, met with him and one of the crooks in a hotel in Oslo and agreed to pay £500,000 (about £1 million or €1.17 million today) for the painting. He then drove south with the dealer to his summer house in Asgardstrand, where he had hidden The Scream in the basement.
“It’s exhilarating to get what you’re going for back,” he told BBC News in 2014, adding that he felt he was “doing my bit for creation”. Four men were arrested by Norwegian police and convicted of stealing The Scream, but three of them were freed by an appeals court, which ruled that the testimony of Hill and his partner was inadmissible because they had used false identities.
Hill died on February 20th in a hospital in London. He was 73. The cause was a torn aorta, his daughter Susannah Lannoy says.
Charles Patrick Landon Hill was born in Cambridge, England, on May 22nd, 1947. His mother, Zita (Widdrington) Hill, who was British, was a dancer; his father, Landon, who was born in Oklahoma, was a US army air forces (and later US air force) officer who was among the first people to enter the Dachau concentration camp in Germany after its liberation. His postwar postings included London and Wiesbaden, Germany, as well as Washington, Texas and Colorado.
Charley, as he was known, graduated from the private St Albans School in Washington and attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, before dropping out to join the US army, serving as a paratrooper during the Vietnam War. In 1971 he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from George Washington University; he then attended Trinity College Dublin on a Fulbright scholarship, taught remedial maths at a school in Belfast for two years and studied theology at King’s College London in 1976.
Shortly afterwards Hill was hired by the Metropolitan Police. He had already acquired a taste for the arts. His mother had taken him to galleries when he was living in Washington. During college he avidly watched Kenneth Clark’s 13-part television series, Civilisation, and attended symphony-orchestra concerts. “Civilisation had a really profound impact on Dad,” Lannoy says, “having come out of the jungles of Vietnam and all its horrors.”
During an early undercover operation in 1980 to recover a painting stolen by two veteran criminals who believed that it would finance their retirement, he posed as an art dealer and bluntly told them that it was a forgery and not worth much.
There is a madness that afflicts these people. They are not necessarily art lovers, but they view the works as trophies
“It took them aback,” Hill told Garage, “but they were happy enough to pour cognac down my throat and took me back to Park Lane, where I was staying. They were soon raided by the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard.” His estimate that the painting was worth only a few thousand pounds was borne out by an auction house, which determined that it was a forgery of a 16th-century work by Parmigianino. “From that point on,” Hill said, “I was a made man.”
His reputation was further enhanced when he recovered Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid in Antwerp in 1993, seven years after it and 17 other paintings had been stolen from Sir Alfred Beit’s collection, at Russborough House in Co Wicklow, by a gang of Dublin criminals led by Martin Cahill, also known as the General, then the State’s leading gangster.
Posing as a middleman for a Middle Eastern tycoon, Hill dealt with a gangster who had come into possession of four of the paintings that had not been recovered in other countries.
In the denouement – in the parking garage of Antwerp International Airport in Belgium – Hill saw the gangster take one of the paintings, Goya’s Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate, out of a sports bag in the boot of his car and unroll it like a cheap poster before the Belgian police arrived. The other three paintings were in the boot as well, including the Vermeer, which had been in a rubbish bag. “I’ve held a Goya, a Munch and a Vermeer in my hands that I personally helped to recover,” Hill once said. “There’s nothing else I want to do.”
His analysis of the motives and personalities of art thieves was not complimentary. The Scream robbers, he said, were a “bunch of Oslo no-hopers”. And he told the Guardian in 2003: “There is a madness that afflicts these people. They are not necessarily art lovers, but they view the works as trophies.”
Hill retired from Scotland Yard in 1996 but continued to work until he died, for an insurance company for a few years and then as a private detective. In 2002 one of Hill’s most noted recoveries as a private investigator was Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt. It had been stolen in 1995 from Longleat House, a grand country estate in England. Hill directed the investigation and had spent several years chasing tips that came to naught. But after discussing the painting and the offer of a £100,000 reward on the radio, he got a call from a man who claimed he could get the Titian back.
After negotiating with him, Hill and Tim Moore, the manager of Longleat House, agreed to wire him the reward money. Once he received the money, the man led Hill to a bus stop across from a railway station in London. “So off they went,” Moore told the New York Times, “and I thought, unless poor old Charles Hill is going to end up with a knife in his back or in a sack in the Thames, maybe we’re on to something.” They were. The Titian was found at the bus stop in a plain, brown wrapper, next to an old man.
Hill is survived by his wife, Caroline (Stewart) Hill; his daughters, Susannah Lannoy and Elizabeth Hill, known as Lizzie; his son, Christopher; two granddaughters; and his sisters, Martha Harmon and Nikki Baugh. – New York Times