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Charley Hill obituary
Charles Patrick Landon Hill, Art Detective, born 22 May 1947; died 20 February 2021
Scotland Yard art detective and private investigator who recovered The Scream and other stolen masterpieces
Charley Hill was the subject of The Billion Dollar Art Hunt, a BBC documentary about his search for 13 paintings stolen in Boston.
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/mar/11/charley-hill-obituary
One bright morning in May 1994, in a summerhouse in the Norwegian fjord town of Åsgårdstrand, Charley Hill, a Scotland Yard detective, stared down a trapdoor leading to the basement. Below, in the dark, was Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, stolen three months earlier from the national gallery in Oslo. With Hill was an art dealer, who had brought him to this secret location, and two men, hoodwinked by Hill’s pseudonym of Chris Roberts, who were handling the sale of the missing masterpiece. “I posed as a representative of the Getty Museum, wanting to buy the painting. The Getty was wonderful in creating an identity for me. There was a lot of tough talk and near misses, but the thieves fell for it.”
Hill, who has died aged 73 after surgery to repair a torn aorta, refused point blank to go down the hatch. He had worked with the Metropolitan police’s art and antiques unit for six years, and knew that, while often romanticised, art thieves could be a dangerous bunch, wrapped up in organised crime. When hunting art, there was a serious risk, Hill told the BBC documentary The Billion Dollar Art Hunt (2020), that one could be “maimed or murdered”.
When the painting was brought up, the first thing the police officer did was to search its surface for the candle wax spilt by Munch when he painted the work in 1893. “In that particular version, the original version, he blew a candle out on it. I made a particular point of memorising exactly how those candle-wax drops looked.”
The thieves in the Scream case, Hill said, were “local no-hopers”, who had merely climbed in through a window of the museum, yet high-level art theft is mostly the preserve of international gangs mixed up with the drugs and arms trade.
Munch’s The Scream
Hill recovered one version of Munch’s The Scream from a basement in a Norwegian fjord town. Photograph: AP
By the time he had travelled to Norway, his skills sought by the Norwegian government, Hill was well respected for his personable approach and a network of contacts that straddled the art world and the underworld. He had made his name in 1993, tracking down Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid by Johannes Vermeer, stolen from Russborough House, an Irish stately home, seven years earlier. Shortly after the raid, the gangster Martin Cahill had demanded a multimillion-pound ransom for its return. Putting on an accent, and working on a tip-off, Hill posed as an art dealer who had Middle Eastern buyers lined up.
“You’ve got to keep your lies to a minimum, but you’ve got to present yourself as somebody people want you to be,” Hill explained in 2018. “I’m as straight as I can be with people, but with a reasonable amount of charm.” The masquerade led him to a multi-storey car park in Antwerp. In the boot of a rented car, wrapped in rubbish sacks, was the Dutch baroque masterpiece. “I had to mask my emotions as I unwrapped the painting,” Hill said. “It’s the greatest masterpiece I’ve had the pleasure to hold.” Alongside it, unexpectedly, was Goya’s Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate.
Hill was born in Cambridge, the son of Zita (nee Tinling Widdrington), a ballerina, and Landon Hill, a captain in the US air force working on missile projects. The family moved between Britain, Germany and the US before settling in Washington DC. There, Charley attended the private St Albans school. He enlisted in the 1968 war draft, serving in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
On his return to civilian life, he enrolled at George Washington University in 1971 to study history, working nights as a museum security guard, before moving on a Fulbright scholarship to Trinity College Dublin. He taught at a Belfast school and was a youth worker until 1974, and then attended King’s College London, studying theology for two years on a veterans’ grant.
He briefly considered ordination in the Church of England, but instead joined the Metropolitan police, first on the beat in Stamford Hill, then as a detective within the serious and organised crime squad. When he was made detective chief inspector in 1990, the art and antiques unit became one of his responsibilities.
In 1992, Hill recovered Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, a masterpiece of the Flemish school by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, valued at more than $1m, stolen from the Courtauld Gallery 10 years earlier. He also worked alongside the German police and Czech authorities to recover a $200,000 Lucas Cranach oil painting taken in a 1991 heist from the National Gallery in Prague.
On leaving the force in 1997, he joined Nordstern Art Insurance (now Axa XL) in the City of London as a risk manager. In 2002 he returned to detective work, but in a private capacity. In his first year as a private eye, it became known that Hill was working with David Duddin, an art thief on parole, in his search for Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, stolen from the Marquess of Bath in 1995, and Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s The White Duck, taken in 1992 from the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s home in Norfolk, Houghton Hall. His acceptance that he might have to collaborate with crooks to recover art, often using rewards as bait, attracted criticism, but Hill claimed he was always “more interested in recovering the art than capturing the criminals”.
At the time of his death, Hill was following a lead in the case of $500m worth of art stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The FBI have long believed the 13 paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Degas and Manet, remain in the US, but Hill was convinced the haul lay sealed behind a wall in a house in west Dublin. His investigation was the subject of the erroneously titled The Billion Dollar Art Hunt, though Hill fell out with the producers, accusing them of putting the life of his source, the career criminal Martin Foley, at risk.
“I never give up,” Hill said when asked if he had ever failed in his investigations. “Those cases just remain open, until they’re solved.” The Boston paintings are still at large.
Hill is survived by his wife, Caroline (nee Stewart), whom he married in 1979, and their children, Susannah, Lizzie and Chris, and grandchildren, Georgia and Olivia.