A DISGRACED lawyer is suing the Duke of Buccleuch for £4.25 million following the theft and safe return of a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.
Marshall Ronald, 56, who was acquitted of trying to hold the stolen Madonna of the Yarnwinder to ransom, claims he had a deal to secure the safe return of the painting that was snatched from the duke’s Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire in 2003.
Mr Ronald claims he is due the contracted amount from either the duke, the UK’s largest private landowner, or the chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway, whose undercover officer set up the agreement.
At the Court of Session yesterday, lawyers for the duke and the chief constable described the claim as “plainly irrelevant and quite frankly nonsense”.
Mr Ronald had asked for the case to be postponed while he applied for legal aid, but lawyers for the duke and chief constable urged the judge to press ahead with a full hearing as soon as possible, in order to have the case dismissed. The judge ruled it should proceed without delay.
The theft of the 16th-century oil painting, worth up to £50m, generated headlines around the world. It was stolen from a wall at the castle by two men, posing as tourists, who threatened a tour guide with an axe before fleeing through a window at the rear and into a waiting car.
The painting, believed to feature the same woman shown in the Mona Lisa, was placed on the FBI’s most-wanted list of missing art treasures. It was recovered during a police “sting” operation in 2007 after it had been taken to a Glasgow law firm’s offices.
In 2010, Mr Ronald, from Lancashire, stood trial with four others accused of conspiring to extort £4.25m for the safe return of the painting. After an eight-week trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, he and two Merseyside private investigators were acquitted on majority not-proven verdicts, and two Scottish solicitors were found not guilty.
Mr Ronald was later struck off as a solicitor by a disciplinary tribunal in England in relation to his involvement with the painting. The tribunal said he had not acted with the honesty and integrity expected of a solicitor.
He used £350,000 of a client’s money to have the painting released by criminals who were holding it, and negotiated with “John Craig” for £2m to be paid to himself and the private investigators. He struck a side deal of a further £2.25m for himself, keeping it secret from the others.
Mr Ronald believed Craig was the duke’s representative but he was, in fact, an undercover policeman. He maintained at the trial that, when he had said to Craig that “volatile individuals” holding the painting might “do something very silly”, it was not a threat, just stating a fact.
Yesterday, the Court of Session was told by Alan Cowan, for Mr Ronald, that an application had been made for legal aid, and a decision was expected around 13 March. He asked for the case to be put on ice until then, saying: “If legal aid were refused, matters may not progress any further in the absence of funding.”
Mr Cowan said Mr Ronald had drafted his own summons and his case was that the duke, through Craig acting for him, had entered into a contract for the return of the painting, and that contract was enforceable. The claim against the chief constable was on the basis that he was bound by the action of Craig, his employee.
Andrew Young, QC, for the duke, and Maria Maguire, QC, for the chief constable, both opposed any delay in the case.
Mr Young said: “It is rather a bizarre attempt to fix a contract on [the duke] for something the undercover officer did in the execution of his normal investigatory role. It is a case which will ultimately go nowhere.”
Ms Maguire pointed out Mr Ronald was “remarkably” also seeking to recover the money he had laid out to have the painting released, money he had taken from a client’s account.
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