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In each case the method has been similar and the thieves have taken advantage of the traditional discretion and reticence of the Trade to continue a well planned series of ‘stings’ without a pattern emerging.

These highly professional thieves appear to have used this year’s Maastricht Fair in March as a convenient venue for assessing both goods and dealers, but their activities began long before that. They were certainly active last November when they established a method which has several distinctive features.

Typically a dealer will receive a call early in the week from an Italian who seems knowledgeable about pictures, prints or books and who expresses an interest in specific works, often with direct reference to a fair catalogue. He is obviously familiar with the works, describes them well and creates a good impression. He is not over-eager and asks for a certain amount of verification before requesting that the work be brought to his home, but stipulating that he must have it before the end of the week because he has to go away.

In fact his ‘home’, though fully furnished in suitably grand style, is a rented apartment, complete with ‘son’ and a ‘secretary who speaks some English’. Probably, a number of dealers have been set up to call with goods at different times in the week, and welcomed into this convincing family set up.

Cheques are signed or receipts carefully made out for goods held on approval and the alarm is only raised when the cheque bounces or the dealer (or his representative) finally grows tired of excuses about sick family or other delaying tactics and returns to the apartment to find it still beautifully furnished, but empty of occupants and their goods.

For some the salt is rubbed into the wound when they find that the hotel and lavish hospitality that their new client has insisted on paying for has, like the apartment, been covered by an invalid credit card.

Equally worrying is the fact that so many reputable firms should have walked unaware into the same trap. Douwes Fine Art of Amsterdam and London, one of Europe’s oldest established art dealers, were recently involved:

“We were shocked. In all the years we have never had this happen to us before,” says Evert Douwes Junior. “So people should not feel ashamed, they make hundreds of deals every year without any trouble – such deceptions are extremely rare.” But he thinks they could be rarer still with appropriate warnings.

“They might feel embarrassed to reveal their identity, but if a dealer is quick to warn others of the modus operandi, which in this case is distinctive, it will alert his colleagues and might lead us to catching the criminals,” he said. “It’s a shame someone didn’t speak up earlier in this case.”

Circulating details of the stolen goods can ring similar alarm bells in the Trade. In a recent development a number of prints stolen in this manner were recovered in London.

Anyone with information should contact Charles Hill at Axa Nordstern on 0171 626 5001.