A Stolen Leonardo Comes in From the Cold

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Madonna with the Yarnwinder, Leonardo, ca. 1501 — Collection: the Duke of Buccleuch

Scottish police scored a big victory late last week. They retrieved Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder. A small oil on panel from about 1501 — that’s the date assigned by the scholar Martin Kemp; others put it as late as 1510 — it was stolen four years ago from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland, where it was on public display. Thieves posing as tourists overpowered a female staffer and made off with it.

One of two versions of the same image, both of them presumed to have been produced by Leonardo, it had been in the family of the Duke of Buccleuch for almost 200 years. Scottish police found it last week in the office of a lawyer in Glasgow. (Oddly, just last August police were saying they had no leads in the case. Were they bluffing for some reason?)

In any event, the last year has been a good one for the art police. They’ve gotten back Munch’s The Scream, the Picassos stolen from the Paris apartment of his grand daughter and now this. The thieves always seem to have no idea what to do with the stuff once they get it. So why is it that there never seems to be movement on the case of that huge haul taken 17 long years ago from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston?

As for the painting itself, it has the same sweetness and tranquility, (and similarity in the pose) as the wonderful Cartoon for the Madonna and St. Anne at the National Gallery in London. And the anecdote it offers is a moving one. Mary has been winding yarn, but the Christ child has noticed that the upper part of the winder is in the form of a cross, which he holds and examines with the foreknowledge of his own fate.

Madonna with the Yarnwinder is said to have survived its four years in the underworld in good condition. Now, after a visit to the conservation department of the National Gallery of Scotland, it will eventually be going back on display at Drumlanrig Castle. No word yet on what the thieves imagined they could possibly do with a painting that famous. Maybe offer it to Alice Walton?