Art

‘We hunted down the removal man who stole our family fortune’

He had seven previous convictions, including dishonesty offences from 1980 and 1990, but had worked for Luker Bros since 2009, on over 2,400 removals. Meanwhile, he had become a ‘regular’ at Jones & Jacob, delivering £54,000 worth of goods over six years, with items in no less than half of their auctions. His 11 victims’ ‘priceless’ possessions sold for just £5,100 but were valued by an independent auctioneer at more than double that – and by their owners at more. They included 11 designer handbags, solid silver items and more than two dozen artworks. There is an assumption among victims that there are more of them out there, and much of the remaining £49,000 worth of consigned goods may also have been stolen.

Among the most significant was a painting by French impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette – LS Lowry’s teacher – of Manchester’s Oxford Road, once loaned to the city’s gallery and belonging to a retired 71-year-old professor who moved to rural France in October 2019. Valette’s pieces have sold for up to £20,000. Bateman also syphoned a painting by Royal Academy member, Bernard Dunstan, lithographs, antique maps and family stamp collections from him.

Another of his victims, Anna Fowler, was robbed of a pastel painting of a horse and carriage by post-impressionist Paul Maze, among other items. Maze’s work sells for up to £18,000. Anna’s sold for £300. ‘Paul Maze taught my grandfather to paint. That had never been on the open market. When I noticed they were missing my heart was in my mouth.’

A comment by Bateman’s colleague stayed with her: ‘He said, “You’ve got so many paintings you wouldn’t miss a few.” At the time I laughed awkwardly.’ There is a suspicion among the victims that at least one of Bateman’s colleagues was either an accomplice or a bystander to his crimes, afraid or unprepared to speak up.

When Anna reported her missing items to Luker Bros, she was told they must be in the house. ‘There was an insistence,’ says Anna. ‘I became full of self doubt.’

Police later discovered a second Maze of Anna’s at auction – an oil painting of London Bridge which hung above the piano in her parents’ home: ‘I have the piano but there’s a space on my wall where the painting should go.’

In March 2020, she received a call from Thames Valley. ‘I was in my garden. They were investigating a series of thefts and there was one person they were building a case against. It brought some renewed sense that I might get back my items.’

In December 2019, the same month the net was closing in on Bateman, Anna had been invited by Luker Bros to make an insurance claim, having previously been refused. Like other victims, she has yet to take up the offer, keener on being reunited with her treasures. ‘Nothing they can offer will compensate me. Their value, to me, is priceless,’ says Anna. A Proceeds of Crime hearing is scheduled for September but police have told victims there is nothing more they can do to recover their goods.

Jones & Jacob have made some effort to trace buyers although no names have been released to victims, citing data protection. Luker Bros have built lawyers to deal with the victims. ‘We feel really let down and frustrated,’ says Anna.

Art lawyer and former Sotheby’s chief legal counsel, Lisette Aguilar, of Keystone Law, says the case is ‘rare but not unheard of’ adding: ‘The story shouldn’t be over. It’s possible for the victims to apply for a court order, demanding that auctioneers disclose buyers’ details.’

Auction houses are not formally regulated and sellers not legally required to prove ownership; The lack of paper trail makes it difficult to trace stolen goods. Legislation only demands that questions are asked of those consigning goods over £10,000. Bateman’s thefts fell below that threshold, however due diligence is encouraged to prevent bad sales.

Aguilar says: ‘When there’s a pattern of behavior like Bateman’s, alarm bells should be ringing. I’d be interested to know what questions, if any, they asked about where he got those items.’

Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law, adds: ‘There is a dark and murky world of stolen art, progressively being illuminated. Many of these victims still own their items in law (title deeds extinguish six years after the first good faith sale following theft) giving police an option to seize them if they resurface.’

He advises victims to log their items with the Art Loss Register which scans auction catalogs for stolen works. They could bring a more costly civil claim against new owners, if their identities are revealed. The victims are biding their time: they have sought informal legal advice, some are considering civil action and a small group are looking at pooling resources to instruct lawyers, although the cost makes it insurmountable for some.

Three months before Anna’s theft, Barry Stride, 72, used Luker Bros to move to a rented, three-storey townhouse from France, where he had lived for 20 years, with his wife Monique and their now teenage son. The couple worked for the UN in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s and acquired a collection of Turkmen carpets, over 100 years old.

Luker Bros had a word-of-mouth reputation within the UN community, and the couple paid £8,567 for Bateman and a colleague to arrive at 9am on a bright summer’s morning near the French-Swiss border.

‘One conversation never left my head,’ says Barry, who was widowed last year. ‘I told Bateman’s colleague that we may use them again, when we leave the rental. He replied, “I don’t want to be there then.” Stride, too, believes Bateman’s colleague must have known what he was up to – and that he chose to turn a blind eye.

They placed boxes in the garage and noticed their two biggest carpets missing when they moved to a new home the following year; police alerted them to a third when their investigation identified them as a victim. Each cost more than £800; one sold for at Jones & Jacob for £80.

Three weeks after moving the Strides, Bateman was dispatched to a small cottage rented by Ffiona Perigrinor, 78, a psychoanalyst, who paid Luker Bros £2,800 to move her into a house two miles away. It was her fifth time using the firm – and another chance to catch Bateman who had not been on one of her house moves before.

‘I’m an old hand at moving. I always pack precious items myself,’ says the grandmother of five, who bought coffee and chocolates for Bateman’s crew on moving day.

‘I got an uneasy feeling from Bateman. He was unhelpful. When I tipped them £50, Bateman looked embarrassed, taken aback.’

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