The thieves who broke into a Glaswegian museum in 1989 kept the heist fairly simple.
Sometime during the night, according to reports in Scottish media at the time, they used a ladder to climb through an upstairs window of a museum. They made off with china dolls, a precious jug and an oil painting.
The painting, “Children Wading,” by the Scottish artist Robert Gemmell Hutchison, remained missing for more than three decades — until it showed up at an auction house in England last year. The stolen artwork has now been returned to Glasgow, the city’s museums charity said this week.
The discovery came after the painting came to auctioneers last year in North Yorkshire, England, as part of an estate sale, said James Ratcliffe, the director for recoveries at Art Loss Register, an organization that tracks lost, stolen and looted art, antiques and collectibles. The group helps auction houses and others in the art market cross reference items coming up for sale with a database of some 700,000 missing pieces.
“We spotted it in our databases as registered as stolen,” said Mr. Ratcliffe, adding that after the discovery, the auction house withdrew it from sale.
“Children Wading,” painted in 1918 in the coastal Scottish town of Carnoustie, depicts two girls leg-deep in water, with a toy boat in the background. The painting’s subjects, Mary Watt and Lorna Galloway, were selected by the artist on a visit to a local school, according to a news release from the Art Loss Register. At the time of its theft, according to local media, it was valued at 8,000 pounds, or about $13,000 at the time.
How and when it ended up in the estate’s possession would be “impossible” to know after so many years, Mr. Ratcliffe said. “It really had disappeared until that stage.”
After the painting was identified in November of last year, the vendor relinquished any claim to the painting and offered to send to it back to Scotland, Mr. Ratcliffe said.
“We are enormously grateful for the work of the Art Loss Register and the unsuspecting vendors for the safe return of a wonderful painting,” said Duncan Dornan, head of Glasgow Life Museums. A spokesman for the charity that runs the museum said that the painting, which had been owned by the city of Glasgow, was returned this summer.
“Children Wading” was missing for so long that the original Glasgow museum displaying it has since closed. It won’t be displayed publicly, but visitors wanting to view the artwork can book a tour of a museum storage facility where it and other items are held.
Thefts at museums and art galleries are not new, but in recent years institutions have reckoned with how to identify and prevent them — and how transparent they should be when they happen.
Among the most high profile examples of late has been at the British Museum, which was mired in scandal this summer after announcing that it had fired an employee over theft and admitted that at least 2,000 items were missing from its collection.
Contrary to its glamorous depiction in Hollywood films, offloading art is often harder than thieves think — especially if the theft is widely reported.
“Once the painting is considered stolen property and is listed on various public and private databases, it becomes impossible to sell,” said Christopher Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International, a company which specializes in recovering stolen art. Such works, he said, are essentially “radioactive.”
Unable to sell stolen works for their true value, criminals might instead try to sell them to unsuspecting individuals or even to thrift stores, he said. But it is also common for long-lost art to turn up during the sales of private collections with the owners unaware of its origins, he added. “Some famous people have had stolen artwork in their estates,” he said. “They hang on the wall for 30, 40 years until the next generation.”
For those who find themselves in possession of stolen pieces — even when the statute of limitations has lapsed on the theft and authorities do not want to pursue a case, — capitalizing on the art can pose headaches.
“It’s at risk of being seized. It’s at risk of embarrassing the person who passed away,” Mr. Marinello said, adding that auction houses often do not want to court controversy either.
“If they do try to sell it, what are they offering their buyer? Maybe a major lawsuit.”