In the last issue of this Journal, an article described the theft of eight pictures from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1967. All were recovered unharmed. In 1981, one of the same pictures was stolen again - the portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III by Rembrandt. This is the story of its recovery, reprinted from an article in the Dulwich Villager Magazine April 1982
‘The Villager’, to the best of the writer’s knowledge, has never carried a crime report and this may be the only time such an article appears within its pages, yet so singular (as Holmes would say) is the story which follows, and so well-known locally are some of the innocent parties involved, that this magazine feels it has a duty to tell it to the best of its ability. Whilst the story has all the ingredients of a thriller of the best tradition, to those closely connected with it, the events held no thrill or glamour but frightening moments in a murky, unfamiliar world.
On 14th August 1981, two men separately entered the Dulwich Picture Gallery at nearly noon. The gallery had been quiet that morning, with only fourteen visitors. After a brief tour of only some minutes, one of the men engaged the attendant at the desk in conversation about the Gallery’s children’s’ quiz sheet. As this was taking place, the second man slid around the back of the desk and the noise startled the assistant. The man, who was wearing a long overcoat, despite the warm weather, quickly asked the price of the catalogue, and when informed it cost £35 asked if he might pay for it in dollars. The attendant said that would be in order and the man wearing the overcoat said he would go out to his car to get them. A moment or so later the other man left the gallery. When the would-be purchasers failed to reappear, the attendant’s suspicions were aroused and a check was made of the gallery. The painting of Jacob de Gheyn III by Rembrandt, which measures 12in. x 10in. was missing. The alarm button which rings directly in East Dulwich Police Station was pressed and police were soon on the scene.
The system of hanging in operation at the gallery at the time of the robbery was merely picture wire and hooks. This was in order that, should a fire break out, the pictures could be swiftly removed. This system has now been changed and many of the pictures have their frames screwed to the wall and some are individually alarmed. The collection is not insured; the premiums would ruin the gallery. At the time of the theft, the gallery’s Director, Giles Waterfield, was sitting on a train en route for an engagement in Edinburgh. The address at which he was staying could not be reached by telephone and it was a devastated Gallery Director who read of the robbery in the morning paper next day.
Giles Waterfield returned at once to Dulwich, where by this time a photofit picture of both men had been issued by the police. For the next ten days nothing happened but on 25th August, Giles Waterfield received a telephone call from Amsterdam from a mysterious German businessman who called himself ‘Mr Mueller’. This later proved to be a fictitious name used by a Mr Smit, who had previously had business dealings in commodities such as cigarettes, whisky, diamonds and weapons.
Giles Waterfield was assured by the caller that he was an honest man who only wanted to help the gallery, but that he had been approached by an American collector who wanted to buy the Rembrandt. Mr Waterfield said that the picture was not for sale and in fact had been stolen. Mueller told Mr Waterfield that he could recover the picture and asked him to fly out to Amsterdam to discuss the matter with him. He was to meet Mueller at the Hilton Hotel at Schipol near the airport.
Although asked by Mueller not to notify the police, Mr Waterfield wisely did and assigned to the case were three detectives from East Dulwich C.I.D.: Det Chief Inspector Evans, Det Sgt Sibley and Det Constable Bosworth-Davies. Next day Evans and Sibley flew out in advance to identify Giles Waterfield to the Dutch police and later that morning Mr Waterfield and Det Constable Bosworth-Davies boarded the Amsterdam plane.
On arrival, Giles Waterfield went straight to the Hilton and paged the mysterious Mr Mueller. Contact was made and under the surveillance of Dutch police, an hour-long discussion took place in which Mueller asked for the sum of £100,000, which he claimed was ten per cent of the painting’s value, to be paid to him for its recovery. Mr Waterfield agreed to go along with this demand but insisted that he be provided with photographs of the painting in its new setting and also details of what was written on the reverse of the picture.
Rendezvous at the Playboy Club
With the grudging agreement from Mr Mueller that the photographs and information would be provided, Mr Waterfield returned to London. Late that night he received a telephone call from Mr Mueller with some of the details of the writing on the reverse of the Rembrandt, Mueller said he had made arrangements to provide the photographs. He instructed Giles Waterfield to go (accompanied by a friend in case of danger) to the Playboy Club in Park Lane. He was there to contact the doorman named Danny and ask for “the envelope for Leo”. Giles Waterfield wisely decided to take as his ‘friend’ the burly Constable Bosworth-Davies!
Arriving at the Playboy Club, Mr Waterfield found to his consternation that the doorman Danny was on holiday. However, Peter, the new doorman, had the “envelope for Leo”. Returning hastily to his flat in Dulwich, now packed with nine large policemen, Giles Waterfield opened the envelope. Inside were ten photographs of the missing Rembrandt, snapped leaning against a wash basin at the top of a flight of stairs. Waterfield was now convinced Mueller was genuine. There was soon another call from Mueller. Giles Waterfield was to persuade the chairman of the College governors to put up the one hundred thousand pounds and the conversation failed to agree whether this should be by cash or bank draft. Again, Waterfield agreed to go along with plans, although there was never the intention of any money being paid over. Mueller wanted Mr Waterfield to go to Amsterdam again so they could discuss the payment but Giles Waterfield refused, having been advised by the police to try to lure Mueller to England. Four days elapsed during which time there had been a number of telephone calls between Giles Waterfield and Mueller. Finally, on August Bank Holiday Monday, Mueller rang again to say he would come to London on the following day and asked Giles Waterfield to provide “a cosy meeting place” where discussions on the transfer of money and painting might take place.
A villain is followed
Police surveillance of Mueller had revealed him making contact with a man named Echterhof, who was subsequently followed back to London by two British policemen. On arrival in London, Echterhof was then met by a man named Stallard and taken to a flat in Cornwall Gardens. A police observation was set up around the flat and Echterhof was seen taking the envelope containing the photographs to the Playboy Club.
Mueller lured to England
Followed by a contingent of unmarked police cars, Giles Waterfield and Dulwich College’s Bursar, David Banwell, drove to Heathrow to meet Mueller next morning. Mueller failed to arrive on the expected flight and a call to Amsterdam found an aggrieved Mr Mueller complaining that Giles Waterfield had not bought him an air ticket and had only made a one-way reservation. This hiccup was soon smoothed over by the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Director.
The ‘cosy meeting place’ selected by Messrs Banwell and Waterfield was the Dulwich Village branch of Barclays Bank! This branch does not boast palatial offices for its manager, and so into the cramped confines of Tony Deller’s office, past the bank’s late afternoon customers, the little contingent was ushered. Outside the plainclothes policemen took up station amongst the bushes of the Chapel garden where they were ‘discovered’ by the College bailiff, Ken Haffenden who was passing by.
Not part of Barclay’s service!
The purpose of the meeting at the bank was to convince Mueller that the Gallery did have £100,000 available for the deal and discussion took place on how this money might be transferred to Mueller. Mueller also wanted Barclays to provide a forged document purporting to come from an American collector offering one million dollars for the painting. Mueller would then pass this on to his contacts to convince them of the prospect of a deal with this fictious source. This was the first intimation Mueller had given that he was about to double-cross his ‘associates’.
Mr Deller, the manager, said that his bank was not able to provide a forged document, as its integrity might be questioned. Mueller said he would devise another plan and he would return to Amsterdam. David Banwell ran him back to London airport, where Mueller boarded the Amsterdam plane. Later that night, Giles Waterfield received a call from Mueller. He had a plan. He would fly back to London next day. He wanted Giles Waterfield to pass himself off as the agent of the fictitious American, to meet Echterhof, and go with him to a London bank vault, where, without the presence of a bank official he could see the painting. He, Mr Waterfield, must then persuade the bank official to retain the painting in the vaults for five days. Explaining to Echterhof that there was a delay in forwarding the money from the States. Mueller would then disappear with the £100,000 and Messrs Waterfield and Banwell would immediately contact the police as soon as Mueller had gone.
The trap is sprung
Next day, Waterfield and David Banwell again met Mueller at London airport, under police scrutiny. Mueller explained that when he telephoned Echterhof to arrange the meet with Giles Waterfield, masquerading as the fictitious American agent, it must sound as if Mueller was telephoning from Amsterdam. After some difficulties in finding a suitable telephone they finally had to go to the Post House Hotel, and the call was made.
At the same time a large but discreet police observation team was still watching the Cornwall Gardens flat. Two men emerged and took a taxi to two leather goods shops. At the second shop they bought a large briefcase, large enough to hide a picture the size of the missing Rembrandt. The two men resumed their taxi journey and were in Berkeley Square when Det. Chief Inspector Evans closed the trap. A number of unmarked police cars boxed in the taxi and inside the brief case was the portrait of Jacob de Gheyn painted by Rembrandt. A police telephone call to the Post House Hotel swung the other part of the trap shut and the much-travelled Mr Mueller was arrested.
Justice is done
Later, at the Old Bailey, the thief, a man named Williams, was sentenced to prison for three years, Stallard, who had provided the flat where the picture was kept received one year and the dangerous Mr Echterhof was sentenced to four years. And Mueller? After serving from September to April in Brixton prison awaiting trial, the enigmatic Mr Mueller alias Mr Smit was acquitted.
The other players in the drama have resumed their more measured lives, Giles Waterfield to looking after a delightful picture gallery in a charming suburb of London, his brief essay into the larger stage of international crime and double-dealing now thankfully over. David Banwell has returned to his office at Dulwich College to carry on managing the affairs of the Alleyn Foundation Schools. Tony Deller has returned to his bank and Jacob de Gheyn III to his familiar wall, none the worse for his adventures,