The art detective whose life was like a Hollywood heist film: Undercover officer and Vietnam War veteran who found Edvard Munch’s The Scream and pieces stolen by Irish gangster Martin ‘The General’ Hill dies aged 73
- Art detective Charles Hill has died of a ruptured aorta on February 20, aged 73
- The father-of-three spent years working undercover for the Metropolitan Police
- His team recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen in 1994
- Also helped find artworks for Marquess of Bath and cider heir Esmond Bulmer
It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood heist film. Two thieves break into a major art gallery and steal a painting worth £40million in less than a minute. Showing off, they leave behind a note at the scene that reads: ‘Thanks for the poor security.’
Local authorities, Norwegian in this case, seek help from their British counterparts and the investigation is assigned to an unassuming Cambridge-born history graduate who goes undercover as a US art dealer to recover the stolen painting.
Only this isn’t the plot of a summer blockbuster, but the real-life story of the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which was taken from Oslo’s National Museum.
And the British officer who found the painting – following a five-month investigation that culminated in a chalet in a Norwegian port town – was Charles Hill, the Vietnam War veteran and world-renowned art detective who has died at the age of 73.
During his 20-year career in the Metropolitan Police, Hill was closely involved in many covert operations, including the recovery of paintings stolen by Irish gangster Martin ‘The General’ Cahill in a 1986 raid on Russborough House, the Co Wicklow mansion belonging to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.
Undercover: Charles Hill, the world-renowned art detective has died at the age of 73. During his 20-year career in the Metropolitan Police, Hill was closely involved in covert operations
After retiring in 1996, Hill continued to work as a private detective. In 2002, he recovered Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt for the Marquess of Bath, seven years after it was taken.
In 2015 he was part of a team that helped reunite former Tory MP Esmond Bulmer, of the Bulmers cider dynasty, with millions of pounds’ worth of artworks stolen during a dramatic raid on his country mansion.
Born in 1947, Charles, also known as Charley, was the son of British ballerina Zita, who performed with cabaret troupe the Bluebell Girls, and Landon, a US Air Force officer who was one of the first people to enter Dachau concentration camp on its liberation.
Charles spent part of his childhood in Essex before the family moved to Washington DC, where Charles attended St Albans School. Future vice-president Al Gore was a classmate.
After serving as a paratrooper in the Vietnam War, Charles returned to the US to study history at George Washington University. He went on to study at Trinity College Dublin on a Fullbright Scholarship.
While in Dublin, Hill met his future wife Caroline Stewart, a civil servant, and the couple married in 1979. They went on to have three children.
High profile: Hill recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream (left) after it was stolen from Olso’s National Museum in 1994. He also tracked down pieces stolen by Irish gangster Martin ‘The General’ Cahill (right) in a 1986 raid on Russborough House, home of Sir Alfred Beit
Following a brief stint in Belfast, Hill moved to London to read Theology at King’s College. However this was soon abandoned for a career in the Metropolitan Police.
The ‘making’ of his career was, he explained, an undercover assignment in 1980. After being promoted to desk sergeant, Hill was tasked with meeting ‘two hardened old criminals who had put away a painting for their retirement’.
‘One was an old armed robber, the other an old safecracker,’ he recalled in an interview with Garage magazine. ‘They met me at Heathrow—they thought I was some dodgy dealer who’d just come off Concorde, and we went to their place in Kent.
‘I took one look at the picture and told them it was a Victorian pastiche, thinking it was best to be straight with them. It took them aback, but they were happy enough to pour cognac down my throat and took me back to Park Lane, where I was staying. They were soon raided by the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard.’
Experts confirmed Hill’s belief that the painting wasn’t worth more than a ‘few grand’. ‘From that point on I was a made man,’ he added.
Happy customers: In 2015 Hill was part of a team that helped reunite former Tory MP Esmond Bulmer, of the Bulmers cider dynasty, with millions of pounds’ worth of artworks stolen during a dramatic raid on his country mansion. Pictured, the Bulmers at home
Hill’s parents had taken him around art galleries as a child and his appreciation of culture had continued into adulthood. While at George Washington University, Hill held a season ticket to the Washington Symphony. His wife Caroline was the niece of Irish artist Louis le Brocquy.
The recovery of The Scream was the most high profile of Hill’s career. Five months after it was stolen, Hill was handed the artwork in an exchange at a chalet in a quiet Norwegian port town. Shortly afterwards the criminals involved were arrested.
The case required Hill to pose as an American art dealer, with credentials provided by The J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He typically posed as a backer, intellectual or art dealer in his operations, which took him around the world.
In 1993, Hill found himself fearing for his life while tracking down artworks stolen by Cahill six years previously.
In May 1986, Cahill and a gang of 10 men broke into Russborough House, the Co Wicklow mansion belonging to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, and stole 18 paintings worth a total of £30million, including Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.
In May 1986, Cahill and a gang of 10 men broke into Russborough House, the Co Wicklow mansion belonging to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, and stole 18 paintings worth a total of £30million, including Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, pictured
Just a month before he recovered the major paintings of the collection – including the Vermeer – in Antwerp, Hill became caught up in a terrifying confrontation with Niall Mulvihill, an associate of Cahill’s who was trying to sell the paintings.
‘I was undercover, and he thought I was from California,’ Hill recalled. ‘I was straight with him and told him he wanted too much for some of the paintings, but he was greedy so-and-so and thought I was holding back on him.
‘The threats he made were serious, against me and my family. I’m glad he didn’t realize I was a cop, that’s for sure. I had told one of my colleagues where I was going to be, so if I’d be floating out to sea in Antwerp harbor they would have identified my body more easily.’
Both Mulvihill and Cahill were later murdered.
Hill’s career also saw him work as a consultant for the insurance specialist Nordstern and at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
Although he never made a great fortune, Hill always believed his work was worthwhile.
‘I love art and I know the important thing is to get the stuff back,’ he told the BBC. ‘Someone has got to do it; who else is going to get these things back if I don’t try?’
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