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rembrandt

In 1990, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

• August 22, 2014 • 10:00 AM

In 1990, Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.

I stumbled across Turbo Paul Hendry somewhere in the gray areas of the Internet. He runs Art Hostage and Stolen Vermeer, two happily abrasive sites dedicated to speaking the truth about art thefts around the world. The proprietor, a former “knocker” himself, sees his position as an advocate and a go-between, providing the true story behind the investigations to recover stolen art. “Maybe I’m just a sucker for Dickens and silver-tongued nutters,” Virginia Heffernan wrote about Hendry a few years ago, “but it’s people like Turbo Paul who, to me, exemplify the possibilities of the open Web.” We spoke over instant messenger, which is how he prefers to communicate.

Why start Art Hostage? Was/is the goal to be an informational source, to drum up work for yourself, or something else?

I saw the reporting of art crime by the MSM [mainstream media] in a way like yellow journalism so I wanted to tell it like it is. I agree I can be toxic, but I am at least even-handed with my toxic views about the criminals and those who pursue stolen art. A paradox is sometimes the so-called good guys act like foxes guarding the hen house. When it comes to negotiating the recovery of stolen art, the bad guys want to deal and tell the truth, the so-called good guys lie and prevaricate to avoid any payments, even if those who provide vital information have nothing to do with the theft or subsequent handling of the said stolen artworks.

Do you see yourself as a middleman? You’re open about your past as a “knocker,” which I would imagine establishes some level of credibility with the so-called bad guys.

Noah, we live in a propaganda-filled world and sadly, journalists have to temper their articles a bit because of fear of being blackballed if they reveal too much truth.

I don’t set people up and do act as a middleman for stolen art when all other avenues have been exhausted. Kinda like The Equalizer for stolen art so to speak.

I like that. How many cases have you been directly involved with? Can you give me an example of one?

“It must be said, however, I am not all bad, as I do advise law enforcement on how to prevent art theft and act as a conduit between law enforcement and the underworld. But being an honest broker means I cannot sting people, otherwise I would lose 30 years of trust built up.”

I have been involved in too many cases to mention but the Da Vinci Madonna case is a fascinating case I was directly involved in. Also, I have consulted in most high-profile cases in recent years. My best work is done when I dance in the shadows and allow others to claim the limelight.

Very little stolen art is recovered these days, and I do get offers of stolen art every day but, sadly, law enforcement won’t allow many deals to happen, so I walk away and tell my contacts to walk away.

Does the visibility your site has gained surprise you?

Not really, because there are only a handful of art crime experts in the world, say six or seven, and I am the only one with the background of being a former trafficker.

Also, being a character and being able to articulate myself helps get over my message as the other experts are ex-law enforcement, insurance loss adjusters, etc., and they are one-dimensional and wooden.

My academic chops, having an M.A., B.A., Hons, etc. helps me and gives me some credibility, but I retain my street cred because I don’t do stings and set people up. Think about it: Where can you read about art crime other than the usual spin in the MSM? I am the only alternative who shoots from the lip.

That’s fair. How has what you do changed in the seven years you’ve had the site? Also, were you doing the same type of work before you started the site?

I got to the top of the stolen art world and retired. I then went to university, rather than play golf or go fishing. In the seven years since I started the site the amount of stings and recoveries has been reduced markedly. People with information have grown wise to the old stings and double-dealings of insurance loss adjusters, etc. so the flow of information has dried up for those investigating art-related crime. However, the dumb crooks still fall for the ruses of ex-law enforcement art crime investigators and loss adjusters, but most seek my council first.

It must be said, however, I am not all bad, as I do advise law enforcement on how to prevent art theft and act as a conduit between law enforcement and the underworld. But being an honest broker means I cannot sting people, otherwise I would lose 30 years of trust built up.

Look, when I comment that a case might be a set up or rewards are bullshit, I am not revealing a secret as most criminals can research the past cases of stings, although they may be referenced on my site.

Before the Internet, law enforcement and insurance agents could use and abuse informants and threaten them with exposure. All of this would happen in secret. Nowadays, the Internet provides a database of previous cases where stings have happened so less recoveries and less information is passed through.

The Gardner case proves the point of credibility. Every time anyone has stepped forward they have been hounded and threatened and even jailed to try and lever them to reveal all. The underworld firmly believes the Gardner museum reward offer of $5 million is bullshit. Think about it: The offer is for all the Gardner art back in good condition, even though when stolen back in 1990 it was cut from the frames therefore it is impossible to be in good condition, another get out clause to prevent payment of the reward. The immunity offer has conditions: Anyone offering help loses their right to take the Fifth and has to reveal all and be prepared to testify against those who have the Gardner art. Therefore, anyone with knowledge stays quiet.

The $5 million Gardner reward offer was made back in 1997 and not raised since so raising it may help?

If authorities really wanted just the Gardner art back, they would offer pure immunity for help and the reward would not have any conditions. So, until then we have to hope the Gardner art is found by authorities stumbling upon it, perhaps during another investigation, but that has been the hope for over two decades.

How can you help get it back?

When I say pure immunity I mean immunity only regarding the Gardner case, not any other cases, etc.

Give me a real immunity deal and concrete proof the reward will be paid, then I could help. I have stated many times I seek not one dime of the reward, but if I could guarantee the reward would be paid and immunity offered to those who could help, then the Gardner art would come home. I also said the Gardner art should be left in a Catholic church confession box to prevent a sting and that would be a kind of absolution for the art. The deal in place would need to be legally watertight so the post-recovery reward would be paid. Again, I seek none of the reward.

Where is the so-called reward? All we have is cheap talk. Why not put the Gardner reward in an escrow account? Why not announce the immunity is blanket and those stepping forward do not have to reveal anything other than the location of the art and then collect the reward. Of course, whomever stepped forward would have to stand the scrutiny of not being involved in the Gardner theft or handling of the art, but I am sure someone could be appointed to take point. But up until now anyone stepping forward gets hounded.

You see the MSM never ask these questions about the Gardner art, just make bullshit repeating the spin about reward and immunity.

What would it take for that to change?

I must say if law enforcement does not want the reward to be paid and want arrests, fine. But don’t try to bullshit all the time.

Each case is different. It depends on what gets stolen and if the desire to recover it overrides the desire to make arrests, then deals can be made. Case in point: the Turners stolen in Germany, which were on loan from the Tate gallery U.K. This is a classic buy back. By the way, buy backs are not illegal, go check. It is not illegal for a victim or an insurance company to buy back stolen art. They try to spin that line, “it’s illegal,” but in reality buy backs are perfectly legal.

Noah, you know the MSM play the game, and in a post-9/11 world, the MSM are terrified to really conduct investigative journalism. Step out of the MSM line and your career is over.

I agree with some of that, but also I think stolen art is pretty low on the priority list of most MSM organizations.

I am not saying rewards or fees should be paid all the time and encourage art theft, but art theft happens because thieves can and will continue regardless. But if someone has information that helps recover stolen art, then they should be paid. Information is a salable commodity but sadly authorities expect it for free.

What does that have to do with MSM and investigative journalism?

I agree with you and much reporting on art crime is one of lazy journalism, therefore just trot out the usual spin under a banner headline. Take the Jeffrey Gundlach case in L.A. He offered a huge reward and got his art back within weeks, and the informant got paid.

Why has the MSM not questioned the Gardner case more? Why not seek answers to the immunity offer and reward offer to smoke out the truth. Then perhaps by firming up both immunity and reward offers people may believe it and come forward?

I see your point. I thought it was interesting that you used Google for everything. Do you trust them with your information despite the sensitive nature of some of it?

Noah, Google guys are great. They provide me with their security so hackers cannot disrupt my site like they may be able to do with an independent site. To hack my blog, hackers would need to bypass Google security and being in California I get the benefit of freedom of speech, so I can be toxic.

I mean less about hackers and more about Google themselves. They have shown in the past that they will work with law enforcement to turn over emails, etc. I’m not saying you’re doing anything illegal—I don’t think you are at all—but I can imagine a situation in which you might have some information like that which someone sends you.

I love Google, America, and of course Israel.

You can say, however, I am even-handed with my toxic viewpoints.

I am a thorn in the side of crooks and law enforcement, as well as the insurance industry. I say what journalists would love to say, I do not have the burden of office.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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