Thursday 14 December 2017

FBI help Irish family recover stolen heirloom after 10 years

Art detective and FBI help track painting

Christopher Marinello
Christopher Marinello
‘Bringing in the Turf’ by William Conor
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

An Irish family are "absolutely delighted" to have recovered a painting and family heirloom that was stolen from their home in mysterious circumstances close to a decade ago.

The painting 'Bringing in the Turf' by William Conor, now valued at €35,000, was first purchased in 1949 by Dr Frank and Turid Malpress.

Conor is known for his pastel and oil paintings of daily life and he has been described as the "Belfast counterpart to Jack B Yeats".

The pair also purchased a second painting on that day, 'The Prodigal Son' by self-taught Belfast artist Daniel O'Neill. Both paintings were displayed on the walls of the Malpress family home for over 50 years.

Aware of the value of the paintings, the family treated them with great caution and care.

In fact in 2003, they replaced them with replicas on the advice of the PSNI, but after the threat of seizure passed they placed the originals back on the walls.

‘Bringing in the Turf’ by William Conor
‘Bringing in the Turf’ by William Conor

Sadly, in 2008, Turid Malpress was victim of a daylight robbery.

A group of thieves broke into the house and stole the two art works.

The family reported the theft to the PSNI but the whereabouts of the two paintings remained a mystery until Conor's painting went under the hammer at Whyte's auction in 2013.

When Robin Thompson, the victim's son-in-law, noticed the sale record listed on Whyte's website he contacted his insurance company.

Thompson's insurance company turned to Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and founder of Art Recovery International - a kind of detective agency for the recovery of looted art - for his help.

Mr Marinello has been involved in several high profile recovery cases.

Most recently, he returned a 1739 Michele Marieschi painting that had been stolen by Nazis during World War II to the descendants of the Graf family - now living in the United States.

He said he was determined to help return 'Bringing in the Turf' back to Northern Ireland.

"The family were so passionate about its return that I wanted to help whatever way I could," he said.

"The buyer was in Chicago so we had to work across three jurisdictions for its return - America, Ireland and Northern Ireland."

To aid in its recovery Mr Marinello teamed up with FBI Special Agent Luigi Mondini - a member of the FBI Art Crime Team.

After four years of negotiations, the painting has now been returned to Northern Ireland.

Robin Thompson said the family are "absolutely delighted to have it back in our family".

He also thanked Mr Marinello for all his help and persistence when "all seemed lost".

"We are thrilled to be able to hang it back on the wall," he said.

When contacted by the Irish Independent, Ian Whyte of Whyte's Irish Art & Collectables Auctioneers said he was unable to comment on the case for legal reasons.

The Malpress family are still seeking the other painting by Daniel O'Neill.

Conor is known for his portrayals of working-class life in Ulster.

He studied at the Government School of Design in Belfast in the 1890s, before working as an apprentice poster designer.

In 1920, he moved to London where he socialised with Sir John and Lady Lavery.

More than 50 of his works are on display in the Ulster Museum.

Irish Independent

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