IT IS considered one of Leonardo da Vinci's finest paintings and its theft from the Duke of Buccleuch's home in 2003 was one of the most audacious art crimes ever committed.
But last night, it was announced that the 37 million Madonna of the Yarnwinder had been recovered - and The Scotsman can reveal that a lawyer working for one of the country's most successful and respected law firms was among four men arrested.
The man, who was believed to be a partner in the firm but who had not been officially named, was arrested yesterday in the offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing in West Regent Street, Glasgow.
Police said the 16th-century painting - whose theft was regarded by the FBI as one of the world's ten worst art crimes - was discovered following a raid in Glasgow. The three other men arrested were said to be from the Lancashire area.
Last night, it was reported that the painting had been discovered by police at HBJ Gateley Wareing's offices.
The four men are due to appear in court today.
A source close to the firm insisted to The Scotsman last night that the lawyer in question was not involved in any criminal act, but was acting as a go-between for two parties by scrutinising a contract that would have allowed an English firm to "secure legal repatriation" of the painting from an unidentified party.
Yesterday's raid, said to be the result of a "long-term" international investigation, involved officers from the Dumfries and Galloway and Strathclyde forces, as well as the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
In a cruel twist of fate, the return of the painting comes too late for the Duke of Buccleuch to see it. He died last month following a short illness. The picture had been in his family's possession for 200 years.
THE theft of the painting in broad daylight from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries, on 27 August, 2003, left police stunned. Using a ploy that could have easily appeared in a scene from the art-heist movie The Thomas Crowne Affair, two men entered posing as tourists taking a tour of the castle.
At an opportune moment, they overpowered a young, female tour guide before snatching the painting from its mountings. They escaped, despite a huge police operation, and their getaway car was abandoned nearby.
Last night, Detective Chief Inspector Mickey Dalgleish, of Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, said: "We are extremely pleased to recover the Madonna of the Yarnwinder painting.
"Through careful investigations and intelligence-led police work, we were able to locate the painting and make four arrests. The recovery of this artwork is down to extensive police inquiries and the combined efforts of several Scottish police forces, the SCDEA and SOCA.
"For four years, police staff have worked tirelessly on the theft and, with help from the public, we have been able to track down and locate the painting," DCI Dalgleish added.
"I would like to thank all staff involved in this investigation, partner police forces and agencies, as well as members of the public for crucial information."
The picture was authenticated by Michael Clarke, the director of the National Gallery of Scotland, who travelled to examine the painting at an undisclosed location. The gallery showed the masterpiece in 1992 as part of an exhibition.
Considered one of da Vinci's masterpieces, the 1501 work is believed to have been commissioned for Louis XII of France.
DESPITE the value of the piece, it is thought that the duke received an insurance pay-out of just over 3 million, as the collection was underinsured.
Drumlanrig Castle belongs to the present Duke of Buccleuch, formerly the Earl of Dalkeith, who is one of Scotland's richest landowners.
He said last night: "News that police believe they may have recovered the Leonardo da Vinci painting stolen in 2003 has been warmly welcomed by our family.
"We keenly await confirmation, but in the meantime express our gratitude to the police for the determined way they have pursued their investigation."
HBJ Gateley Wareing, the firm where the arrested lawyer worked, declined to comment officially last night.
But a source close to the firm told The Scotsman:
"A male lawyer at HBJ was acting as an agent on behalf of an English firm, who were acting to secure legal repatriation of this painting, to make sure a contract was binding in Scots law.
"It appears the contract was being looked over in the West Regent Street offices in Glasgow. Their guy was acting absolutely above board. He was just being lawyerly.
"There's no suggestion he was acting improperly, and I think that'll come out. But the cops have just arrested everybody."
THE law firm, which also has offices in Edinburgh, is synonymous with Malcolm McPherson, a former chairman of Hibernian Football Club, who is the senior partner of the firm. Formerly known as Henderson Boyd Jackson, it merged last year with Gateley Wareing, a Birmingham law firm. The combined company is one of the top 60 UK legal firms.
Scotland Yard had maintained that the painting was likely to be in the hands of drug traffickers and was being used as collateral for deals, and thus would not be recovered for years.
Drumlanrig Castle, which houses one of the finest private art collections in Britain, also contains masterpieces by Rembrandt and Holbein. The castle was completed in 1691 and is one of the most important Renaissance buildings in Scotland.
A hugely valuable and rare link to genius of the Renaissance
MADONNA of the Yarnwinder is one of only a few paintings which have been authenticated as a Leonardo da Vinci.
Art critics have described the painting, which is just 19in by 14in, as one of his most interesting and complete sketches.
It is also regarded as one of the most important paintings to have been stolen in the UK in the past 70 years.
Brian Sewell, one of Britain's best-known art critics, said: "There is so little that can reasonably be attributed to Leonardo, there are only about 12 of his paintings left. As this one has been accepted as one of his finished ones, it makes it very important and highly valuable."
The 10th Duke of Buccleuch, who succeeded his late father this year, said: "It's the most beautiful work of art by one of the greatest painters in the world. It is a work of such peace and beauty."
He said the painting had been purchased in Italy in the 18th century by the third duke and had been conclusively identified as a work by the Renaissance master only in 1986 following scientific tests.
It was painted in about 1501 for Florimand Robertet, the secretary of state to Louis XII of France, and symbolises the future passion of Jesus Christ. Professor Duncan McMillan, the visual art critic for The Scotsman, said: "It is incredibly important and contemporary with the Mona Lisa."
Leonardo, born in 1452 at Vinci is often described as a "Renaissance man", a genius who left behind a legacy of some of the world's finest art.
Two of his greatest works were the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, which attract millions of visitors each year and are the most reproduced artworks of all time. Their nearest rival is Michelangelo's Creation of Adam.
Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also iconic.
He was also a scientist and engineer who designed prototypes for early "machines" such as helicopters and telescopes.
Scientists regard his research as unique and astounding for its time. He compiled hundreds of notebooks containing 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, many of which are a rare combination of art and science.
Possessing a great deal of self- discipline, Leonardo spent hours every day, whether at home or on his travels, recording his observations and ideas for future projects.
The journals were mostly written in mirror-image cursive script - some suggest that this was because Leonardo was left-handed rather than a necessary precaution in a time when church authorities persecuted free-thinkers who put science before religious beliefs.
Masterpieces in rogues' gallery
THE Leonardo da Vinci painting joins Edvard Munch's The Scream and a host of Old Masters in the gallery of recovered stolen art.
The Norwegian artist's tortured image has, until now, epitomised fine art crime after two versions were stolen in a decade.
One was first taken in 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo and recovered three months later. Another was stolen at gunpoint in 2004 from the city's Munch Museum, along with Madonna, another of Munch's paintings. It was recovered last year, but the museum later said it was damaged beyond repair.
Rembrandt's Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III holds the record as the world's most stolen painting. After having been taken, and recovered, four times, the work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London has been nicknamed the "takeaway Rembrandt".
Even da Vinci's Mona Lisa has fallen victim to theft.
It was stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911 and recovered two years later.
Pablo Picasso was among those questioned about the theft, but it later emerged that a gallery employee had walked out with it under his coat.
Other works recovered after being stolen include Renoir's Young Parisian, his Conversation with a Gardener and a Rembrandt self-portrait, which were taken in a raid on the National Museum in Stockholm in 2000.
In the United States, the FBI is involved in helping to trace stolen art, and has a top-ten art crimes listed on its website, which included Madonna of the Yarnwinder.