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Obituary: Charles Hill

The art detective recovered some of the world's greatest treasures


Never gave up: Charles Hill recovered priceless paintings

Never gave up: Charles Hill recovered priceless paintings

Never gave up: Charles Hill recovered priceless paintings

Charles Hill, the art detective, aided the recovery of many priceless objects, in an adventurous career both with the Metropolitan Police in London and as a freelance investigator, most sensationally Edvard Munch's The Scream and Titian's Rest On The Flight Into Egypt.

In the weeks before his death Charley Hill came to Ireland, acting on new information concerning Rembrandt's Storm On The Sea Of Galilee - one of the paintings stolen in a $1bn (€840m) art heist in 1990. "It takes time," he said. "You can call me bloody-minded. But I never give up."

In 1979 he married Caroline Stewart, a niece of Louis le Brocquy. She survives him with their two daughters and a son.

Hill's most famous case was the recovery of Munch's The Scream - valued at £30m when it was stolen in 1994 on the opening day of the Winter Olympics.

While the eyes of the Norwegian police were diverted, two men climbed a ladder at the front of the National Gallery in Oslo, smashed a window, grabbed the painting and made off. The raid took less than a minute.

Having failed to secure a "buy-back" deal with the Norwegian government, the gang approached an associate in Britain. A meeting was arranged in London and Scotland Yard set an elaborate sting in motion. The thieves took the bait.

'Chuck Roberts', a representative from the Getty Museum in California, was dispatched to Oslo with a suitcase containing £500,000 and a bodyguard named 'Sid Walker'. A rendezvous had been arranged in an Oslo hotel and two days of negotiations with the robbers began.

Having agreed a ransom of £300,000 (with a further £15,000 to cover the gang's expenses), 'Roberts' was driven 80km to a village on a fjord where Munch himself had owned a summer house, while 'Walker' stayed in Oslo with the money.

There, tucked away in the cellar of a chalet and wrapped in a bed sheet, was The Scream, the edges frayed but otherwise undamaged. 'Roberts' verified its authenticity by the wax-splatter on one corner of the canvas where Munch had blown out a candle.

'Roberts' returned to Oslo with the painting and the trap was sprung. But far from being a bow-tied American with a steady patter of Californian art-speak, Roberts was Charley Hill, and 'Walker' was a fellow officer from Scotland Yard. The Norwegian police pounced, the painting was recovered and the gang arrested.

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Patrick Charles Landon Hill was born in Cambridge on May 22, 1947. On completing his military service, Hill won a Fulbright scholarship to Trinity College Dublin to study modern history. Spiritual curiosity, perhaps encouraged by his maternal grandfather, then nudged him in the direction of a theology degree at King's College London.

But the church did not promise sufficient excitement. Instead, Hill joined the Metropolitan Police in 1978, working undercover with various crime squads, most notably the art and antiques squad, which he led as chief inspector between 1994 and 1996.

His first undercover art assignment, to retrieve a stolen 16th-century Parmigianino, came in 1982. He mugged up on Mannerism and, posing as an American art dealer, set out to win the trust of two criminals who wanted to offload the painting. Over a bottle of Rémy Martin and tales of Vietnam, Hill examined the Parmigianino and declared it a fake - he did not want it, he said. The next day, after police raided the pair, Christie's confirmed Hill's suspicion. "From then on," said Hill, "I was the Yard's art 'expert'."

He went on to play a part in some of the great art-theft recoveries. In 1991 he helped to retrieve Breugel the Elder's Christ And The Woman Taken In Adultery, stolen from the Courtauld Institute in 1982. Two years later he recovered Vermeer's Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid and Goya's Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate along with other paintings stolen from Russborough House in Co Wicklow by Dublin gangster Martin Cahill.

Later he turned freelance, forming a specialist art crime investigations agency - Charles Hill Associates - in 2001. He was also appointed security adviser to the Historic Houses Association. Working in the private sector gave Hill the freedom to follow his own interests in his own way.

Hill was keen to dismiss the image of art theft as a gentleman's crime as outdated and insisted that the modern art criminal was "dangerous, violent and bad news". He was equally scornful of the popular myth of the criminal mastermind who adorns his secret hideaway with Old Masters.

Charles Hill died on February 20.