A JUDGE has cleared the way for a bid to sue the Duke of Buccleuch for £4.25 million over the return of a stolen Leonardo da Vinci painting.
Marshall Ronald, 57, is seeking a payout from the UK’s largest private landowner following the recovery of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, which was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, in 2003.
Former solicitor Mr Ronald claims he was commissioned to ensure the painting was handed over.
He was at the offices of a Glasgow law firm along with others – including undercover police officer John Craig, posing as a risk-management expert – in 2007 when the masterpiece was returned after four years. Mr Ronald, of Upholland, Lancashire, was cleared, with others, of a conspiracy to extort money for the safe return of the masterpiece at a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2010.
He claims he was put in touch with undercover officers and on 29 August 2007 he and Mr Craig entered into an agreement which would see the duke pay him £2m to secure the painting. The figure increased to £4.25m a few days later, it is claimed.
Mr Ronald claims that was less than 10 per cent of the value of the painting.
He said he knew the painting was stolen but did not know by whom.
Mr Ronald said he was in contact with intermediaries and agreed to pay them £700,000 to secure the art work’s release. He claims he paid over £500,000.
The duke maintains that undercover officer Mr Craig had no authority to make an agreement on his behalf.
It is also alleged the agreement Mr Ronald seeks to rely on is “unenforceable as being illegal and contrary to public policy”.
Lawyers acting for the duke sought to have the action dismissed at a procedural hearing before Lord Glennie. Andrew Young QC said: “Properly viewed, what the pursuer [Mr Ronald] is averring is an attempt to extort a sum of money.”
Mr Ronald said he had acted in good faith and told the court: “I don’t accept any illegal acts.”
Lord Glennie said he would not dismiss the case.
He said: “It is by no means impossible to conceive of a case where, as part of a police operation to recover a painting, a reward is offered to someone who may be in a position to facilitate its recovery, and the reward is paid to that person when the painting is in fact recovered.”
He added: “The best that can be said is that he was in a position in which he had the opportunity, through others, to pay money in the hope of procuring its release.
“If this is the true picture, I can see no basis upon which it can be said negotiation of an agreement to be paid a handsome reward amounts to extortion.
“It might be quite different if he himself had possession of the painting or it was within his control; but that is not what is presently averred.
“As matters stand, I do not accept that the pursuer’s case is bound to fail.”
Mr Ronald is expected to continue with the case.