A rewarding case

The seven-week trial of the five men charged with conspiring to extort £4.25 million for the safe return of a stolen Leonardo painting to its owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, ended on 21 April 2010 with verdicts of not proven in respect of three of the accused and not guilty for the other two (both Scottish solicitors).

The painting was stolen from the Duke's Drumlanrig Castle in 2003, and was recovered when the five accused were arrested at a Glasgow solicitors office in 2007.  The actual thieves have never been arrested or identified.  On 7 May 2010 the Crown Office announced the dropping of further charges of conspiracy to extort in relation to the safe return of the painting, brought against three different men, all from the Glasgow area.  The amount alleged to have been involved in this case was £5 million.

The first case appeared to show that the Scottish solicitors had become involved with the other three (all from England, one a solicitor) in advising them whether they would be able to claim the reward offered by the Duke of Buccleuch for the return of the painting (presumably involving a return to such classics as Carlill v Carbolic Smokeball Co [1893] 1 QB 256 and Petrie v Earl of Airlie (1834) 13 S 68).  After the case against them had ended, the three indicated that they now wanted to claim the reward, having been instrumental in returning the painting to its owner.  It appeared that the claim was unlikely to be accepted by the Buccleuch family, given that the information about the painting's whereabouts had not been submitted to the police. 

Perhaps, therefore, we may yet have a case in the Court of Session and a clarification of the vexed question of whether the offer of a reward is merely that – an offer, requiring acceptance to the offeror before it becomes a contract and so binding – or a unilateral promise subject to suspensive conditions which must be fulfilled before the reward can be claimed (see MacQueen & Thomson, Contract Law in Scotland, para 2.61).

width=300Meanwhile, the painting, known as The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, hangs on loan in the National Gallery of Scotland, smiling as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa and hiding the vexed question of whether it really is by Leonardo or is merely a copy – raising potentially another classic contract law problem for the Buccleuchs (see further MacQueen & Thomson, Contract Law in Scotland, para 4.45).