Case of 17th-century landscape highlights failure of European auction houses, dealers and collectors to carry out searches
Paul Mitchell with the recovered 17th-century painting by Jan van Goyen
 Paul Mitchell with the recovered 17th-century painting by Jan van Goyen. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

European auction houses, dealers and collectors are failing to make adequate checks to avoid handling stolen artworks, an art lawyer has warned after recovering from an Italian auction an old master painting taken from its British owner in a burglary more than 30 years ago.

Christopher A Marinello, who specialises in recovering stolen art and resolving title disputes, said: “We do find a lot of stolen and looted artwork in civil law countries such as Italy, France and Germany. Consigners of tainted works of art often try to hide behind the good-faith purchase laws of these countries while performing little or no due diligence.”

He spoke to the Observer after negotiating the return from Italy of a landscape painting by Jan van Goyen, a 17th-century Dutch painter, which was stolen in 1979. Negotiations were particularly delicate because, under Italian law, if someone buys a stolen work in good faith the buyer is sometimes entitled to keep it. Marinello was able to prove to the Italian auctioneer that the painting was one of nine pictures stolen at night by criminals who broke into the home of Paul Mitchell, an antique picture frame specialist in London.

View of Lake Nemi
 View of Lake Nemi by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of the paintings stolen from Paul Mitchell.The thieves forced open a window to enter his house. Mitchell assumed that the slight noise that he heard from downstairs was the family cat. “Police call these people ‘creepers’, night-time burglars who specialise in burgling people when they are in their house,” Mitchell said. Describing waking to discover the theft, he added: “The anguish is a very long, deep-seated thing which never really goes away. Hardly a day goes by when I haven’t thought about it.”

The loss of the pictures was also painful because of their sentimental value. They belonged to his father, but had become so valuable that Mitchell could not afford to insure them for their full worth. Back in 1979, the paintings were valued at £400,000. Today the amount is well into seven figures. After the theft, Mitchell tried in vain to track down the paintings, offering a £5,000 reward for their recovery, placing advertisements in international journals and approaching a specialist art detective. But the trail went cold.

He was overwhelmed with emotion at being reunited with the Van Goyen, a beautiful beach scene painted in 1643 by a pioneer of naturalistic landscape painting. It surfaced by chance a few weeks ago after a Dutch dealer tried to buy it in Italy. Before paying for it, he decided to search a London based stolen art database.

 

Still Life by Pieter Claesz
 Still Life by Pieter Claesz, another of the missing paintings.

Marinello, who has recovered £200m worth of stolen and looted art in seven years, confirmed that it had been stolen: “The Italian auction house involved did not search the work, but the dealer did. While losing out on a potential future sale, the [dealer] protected his reputation and saved himself significant sums in legal fees defending a case over title to the painting.”

Unless more dealers, collectors and auctioneers make such checks, he added, other stolen items will remain undetected. “It’s the same concept as having a survey done prior to purchasing a home. Considering the values involved, why wouldn’t you want to know if there were serious title issues before purchasing fine art?”

Pastoral landscape by George Smith
 Pastoral landscape by George Smith of Chichester, which is still missing after 30 years.

Asked why they had not made such checks, Marinello stopped short of suggesting that the buyers had not wanted to know about doubts over an artwork’s legality: “Perhaps it’s the excitement of getting a good deal.”

A reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of the other eight lost paintings, including Still Life with Oyster Shells (1646) by Pieter Claesz, and Lake of Nemi at Sunset (1780) by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Mitchell said his experience of being reunited with the Van Goyen after more than three decades will give hope to other people who have suffered thefts of their family’s treasured items.