Northern Ireland

FBI helps NI family recover stolen William Conor art

Painting called Bringing in the Turf by William Conor
Image caption Bringing in the Turf by William Conor was valued at nearly £20,000 when it was sold at auction in 2013

The FBI has helped a family in Belfast to recover a valuable painting that was stolen from their house nine years ago.

Frank and Turid Malpress bought the piece, Bringing in the Turf by William Conor, in 1948.

The artwork was stolen in 2008 and its whereabouts were unknown for five years.

In 2013, the couple's son-in-law noticed the piece on a Dublin auction house website after it had been sold to a collector in Chicago.

Bait paintings

William Conor was born in Belfast in the late 1800s, and is famous for his watercolour and crayon portrayals of working-class life in Ulster.

Bringing in the Turf - which shows two girls gathering turf on their backs in wicker baskets - was one of two valuable pieces belonging to the family to be taken during the 2008 robbery.

A second piece by Irish artist Daniel O'Neill, entitled The Prodigal Son, remains missing.

Prior to the theft, the Malpress family had received a warning from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that thieves had been operating in their area and that their art collection could be targeted.

Following the warning, the police made copies of the work and replaced them with the originals to act as bait for potential robbers.

When no theft was attempted, the originals were returned and the fake versions destroyed.

But in 2008, thieves broke into the Malpress home, stole the collection and left a token sum of money.

'Total disbelief'

An investigation was launched into the theft, but the paintings were not seen for five years.

Image caption A painting by Irish artist Daniel O'Neill, entitled The Prodigal Son, is still missing

Robin Thompson, the victims' son-in-law, noticed the family-owned artwork on Whyte's Auction House website in 2013, where it was valued at nearly £20,000.

"I was in total disbelief when I saw it online," he told BBC News NI.

"I knew it was the real thing when I saw it, because I was familiar with it. It's quite a distinctive piece.

"I contacted the auction house and they told me it had been sold."

In fact, the painting had already been shipped to its new owner in Chicago.

'Shocked'

Mr Thompson informed his insurers he had located the painting.

They enlisted the help of Art Recovery International in Venice, Italy, which then contacted the FBI's Art Crime Team.

Lead investigator, FBI agent Luigi Mondini, headed up negotiations between the victims and auction buyers.

"I had a series of negotiations with them," Mr Mondini told BBC News NI.

"The auction buyers were really shocked as they had done all they could in terms of due diligence.

"They weren't expecting it at all - but they were really co-operative as they didn't want to hold onto something that didn't belong to them," he added.

The artwork has now been returned to its rightful owners in Belfast.

"My mother-in-law died a few years ago so the picture is back with our family now - but we are delighted to have it back," said Mr Thompson.

It is still unclear who stole the paintings, but it is understood the PSNI are still investigating.