Wry Society: The art heist

Cultured cat burglar Arthur knows exactly what he’s after… and it’s hanging on Henry’s walls. But is haul’s well that ends well? Words by Sam Leith

Image: Eyevine

Arthur didn’t think of himself as a common burglar. Not for him the spade through the patio window, the hasty shoving of loose iPads and silverware into a Sports Direct holdall and the rapid search for a pub in which to hock them. No. He was a gentleman burglar – a man who stole to order. A man of taste. A professional. He prided himself, for instance, on leaving stray electronics and even jewellery where he found it. 

So he’d been intrigued when a contact who worked in one of the London auction houses had let slip a tip. There was an elderly geezer, pretty eccentric – rich as Croesus but not one of the above-the-radar guys. Apparently this bloke didn’t trust insurance companies, didn’t trust banks – and he’d locked the bulk of his vast fortune up in artworks. But not the sort you store in a container in a Free Trade Zone and never set eyes on. Arthur’s mate had a mate who was on the transportation end of things and apparently the old geezer had it all at home – a little Louvre going on in Hampstead. 

So Arthur had checked it out. Never good to get over-excited about these things, of course; he did his research. Found the house easily enough – it was set back a bit from its neighbours. You’d be able to get in easily enough down a side alley, and the garden wasn’t overlooked. No visible alarm. The old guy – frizzy white hair, old denim jacket and a kind of bohemian scarf thing he always wore – came and went fairly regularly. Henry Crawshaw, his name was. Apparently, he’d struck it rich as an adman in the ’60s and had also written the lyrics to some songs that were still in rotation on Heart FM. 

And – this was the good bit – though he didn’t often go much further than the shops, every Friday without fail he set off at 10am to go bathing in the Ponds, and then went to meet a lady friend for lunch in Primrose Hill. He was never gone less than four hours, and three were all Arthur needed. So at 10.30am one Friday, Arthur hopped the fence, popped the lock on the kitchen door and was in. 

And my goodness: it really was a treasure trove. The walls of the living room were crammed with art – and to Arthur’s semi-expert eye, it all looked very tasty. That definitely had the vibe of a Corot, he thought, as – stepping past a couple of planks lying on the floor by the fireplace – he eased the canvas off the wall and into his portfolio. And that looked like a Seurat. And that – ouch! – he stifled a yelp as he stubbed his toe on a crystal ball that was being used as a doorstop. 

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How could an art lover, he wondered fleetingly, have so much junk around the place? That iron on the ironing board looked like it had bloody nails sticking out of it, for instance. No wonder the bloke was scruffy. But Arthur was a pro; he had work to do and he did it. He made off with 15 of the finest-looking canvases and, breaking his own rule (but what the hell), a bottle of very nice claret lying precariously across that wine rack that looked like a Dalek. 

When Henry Crawshaw arrived home early that afternoon, he was horrified. “Burgled!” he gasped, looking at the empty spaces on the walls where his paintings had been. He was pierced by the thought of the hours he’d spent in his attic at his easel, trying to replicate Corot’s style, trying to think himself into Seurat’s way of seeing. All worthless, of course – though, obviously, not to him. 

Still, he was consoled to see nothing important had gone. The Fischli-Weiss planks were in their usual place on the floor. He righted the André Breton crystal ball. Man Ray’s Cadeau was still on the ironing board and the Duchamp was untouched – though it looked a bottle short. 

Only his pride and joy left to check. He stepped through into the kitchen, noting that the Warhol Brillo Pad box was safe on the sill behind the sink. As he opened the pantry, he held his breath; but there, neatly arranged behind the baked beans and the spaghetti hoops, was his prized stack of tins – the largest collection anywhere on earth of Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista

“Cheeky sod might have made off with my claret,” he thought, “but at least he didn’t help himself to lunch.”

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