Art Theft

The Butler Did It

At the sprawling Bel-Air estate of oil tycoon Howard Keck, his wife Elizabeth often played cards in a side room decorated with fine art. One of the artworks hanging on the wall of this room was a painting by Swedish impressionist artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) entitled I Fria Luften. For almost three months, Elizabeth felt a vague subliminal uneasiness about the painting that she just couldn’t put her finger on. Finally, she did put her finger on it – on the canvas itself, and suddenly realized she was touching a photograph rather than the oil painting that was supposed to be in the elaborate gilt frame.

Art detectives arriving at the estate noted the elaborate security measures including high walls, 24-hour armed guards, a sophisticated alarm system, and the presence of a full-time house staff. The house would have made a fine museum – opulent with lots of marble and giant rooms with high ceilings filled with art and antiques. A $1 million Gainsborough painting hung over a mantelpiece. It was all very impressive. Nothing appeared out of place. But, from the plebian view of an L.A city cop, it did not have the cozy comfort of home.

The theft was an obvious inside job by a person who had regular access to the painting. Someone took a high quality photo of the painting and then had a custom lab blow up the image so that it would exactly fit the existing space for the stretcher and frame.

Detectives learned that three months earlier, the family butler had unexpectedly quit his job with the Kecks. Rune “Roy” Gunnar Donell, 61-years old, who had been a faithful employee at the estate for 11 years, announced that he was leaving because he needed surgery. He and his wife Christina, who was a cook at the estate, left at the same time. Elizabeth offered to pay for Roy’s surgery if he and Christina would stay, but they refused. Elizabeth remembered that Roy, who was a Swedish national, often admired the Zorn painting and commented that it would bring a high price in Sweden.

The photo and frame were chemically processed for fingerprints with ninhydrin and a laser. Detectives began to canvass all the custom photo labs to ascertain where the large blowup of the painting was made.

With the assistance of Interpol and the Swedish police, detectives attempted to trace Roy’s activities during his frequent flights back home. Detectives learned that almost a year ago, Roy Donell had appeared at a Swedish auction house called Beijars Auktioner, Scandinavian Art and Antiques AB. Roy auctioned off a painting entitled Fete Gallante by French artist Sebastien Jacques Le Clerc. Elizabeth Keck was contacted and verified that she owned the Le Clerc painting which was given to her as a gift. After talking to detectives, she searched for it and discovered it was also missing.

Swedish authorities learned that after collecting his money for the painting, Roy showed the auctioneers a photograph of a painting entitled Kvinna Klaer Sitt Barn (Woman Dressing Her Child). Detectives learned this was another title for Zorn’s I Fria Luften oil painting. Roy told the auctioneers that if they were interested in purchasing it, he could come back with the painting. Six months later, Roy arrived in Sweden accompanied by a woman of Latin appearance. Roy was met at the airport by the directors of the Swedish Auctioneers Office. He had the Zorn painting with him and consigned it for sale through the same auction house. Based on the date that Roy arrived in Sweden with the painting, detectives calculated that the bogus photo reproduction of the painting had been hanging in the Keck residence for five months before the theft was discovered.

The painting sold at auction for $527,000. The money went to Roy Donell.

Detectives arrested Roy before he could flee the area. He was held on $500,000 bail. During a search of his West L.A. apartment, detectives found evidence of money transfers from the sale of art belonging to the Kecks. Cameras and negatives depicting paintings were found along with a paper identifying Roy as a freelance photographer. There was also a receipt from a storage yard in Redondo Beach. When detectives called the manager at the storage yard, they learned that Roy stored a 25-foot motor home at the location. Roy tried to convince the detectives that he sold the motor home.

When detectives served a search warrant on the motor home and shimmied through a side window, they found two additional blowup photos of the Zorn painting, similar to the one found in the frame. Detectives were surprised to find another blowup photo, the exact size of a painting hanging in the Keck residence. The painting was entitled Ducks on the Banks of a River by German artist Alexander Koester (1864-1932). Detectives quickly contacted Elizabeth Keck to make sure the original painting was still hanging on the wall. Luckily, it was. It appears that Roy, emboldened by the success of his two earlier “acquisitions,” was planning to remove still another painting from the Keck residence, replacing it with a photograph.

Detectives located the custom lab where the photo blowups were made. Tom Rossi, owner of Rossi Photography Custom Lab in Hollywood, remembered how Roy approached him one day with a color slide of a painting. Roy said he needed to have a custom print made to an exact size that would fit an existing frame. Rossi attempted to make several enlargements of the slide but Roy did not like the results, stating the color and size were not accurate enough. Rossi told Roy that he would need access to the original painting in order to reshoot it with a 4×5 format camera to get the size and color correct.

At a later date, Roy showed up with the original oil painting without the frame. The painting depicted a nude woman outdoors dressing a small boy by a pond. Roy insisted on staying with the painting continuously while it was being photographed. A color print enlargement was made and mounted on a posterboard. However, Roy was still not satisfied with the result, stating the photo was ½ inch off. So the photo was printed again until it exactly fit the frame. This entire process took two months to complete at a cost of hundreds of dollars.

Detectives learned the woman who went to Sweden with Roy was not his wife, but rather, Esther, his mistress. They had known each other for ten years. Roy paid her rent and they both lived in the same apartment building. She recalled that he carried a large object with him on the flight to Sweden but claimed she did not know what it was.

Roy Donell was prosecuted for two counts of grand theft. As the start of the trial approached, prosecutors had no idea what defense Roy could possibly wage to counter the avalanche of evidence against him. However, the District Attorney’s Office soon learned that Roy was going to use a novel tactic. The Kecks were embroiled in protracted divorce proceedings at the time of the theft. During the monthlong trial, Roy admitted selling the two paintings in Sweden but claimed he was acting as an agent for Elizabeth Keck to sell assets without Howard Keck’s knowledge. Roy claimed he gave most of the money to Elizabeth, keeping $90,000 as his commission.

Elizabeth declared Roy’s assertions as “ludicrous” that she would conspire with her butler to sell the paintings and then report her discovery of the stolen paintings to the police. But enough doubt had been placed in the minds of the jury for them to acquit Roy of the charges. Some jury members later stated that the prosecution had simply not proven the case against Roy “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the stringent burden of proof in criminal cases.

An outraged Elizabeth Keck subsequently brought a $31 million civil lawsuit against Roy. In a civil suit, the burden of proof is far less stringent, requiring only a preponderance of the evidence to establish guilt.

The Swedish government refused to return the paintings, claiming that according to Swedish law, the auction buyers had purchased the paintings in good faith.