Twas the year 1992 and Charlie Hill, Mark Dalrymple & Dick Ellis were riding the crest of a set up wave, stinging people who tried to hand back stolen art.
"In 1994 the art-and-antiques squad was on a roll. After some years in abeyance, it had been revived in 1989.
It had an immediate success, recovering several paintings stolen from the Beit collection in Ireland in 1986, and notching a further coup in 1992 when it recovered a painting by Pieter Brueghel, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, stolen from London's Courtauld gallery 10 years before.
The fate of the Brueghel is illuminating. Since the Brueghel - like the Turners - was unsaleable on the open market, it is likely to have been used instead as an alternative currency within the criminal world, whose denizens like to talk of 'laying down' stolen paintings, like vintage wine, until their value can be realised.
It may also have been used as collateral for funds raised for drugs or other criminal deals. Sometimes, says Mark Dalrymple, head of the loss adjusters Tyler and Co, who specialise in the art market, these deals can become quite labyrinthine, 'and you end up with half a dozen people having an interest in the picture'.
By 1991 the Brueghel had reached a high-ranking London criminal, who decided to cash in his investment.
He commissioned four minor London villains to sell it on his behalf. Somewhat naively, they telephoned Christie's to ask how much 'a Brueghel' was worth.
Then they called the director of the Courtauld, Dr Dennis Farr, and told him they had purchased the Brueghel only to discover it was stolen - and the Courtauld could have it back for £2m. Both Christie's and Farr told the art-and-antiques squad about the gang's approach.
The squad's head was Dick Ellis, a detective sergeant renowned for his talents for running stings, above all in devising some extra ingredient to give them plausibility or 'edge'. 'There's an art to running an undercover operation,' Ellis says now. 'You've got to be imaginative.' ('They are quite fun,' he adds.)
Ellis now constructed a sting to recover the Brueghel. He recruited two characters: one was Farr, who would play himself. The other was to be a brash American, a part to be taken by one of the Yard's undercover officers, Charley Hill, who had spent much of his life in the US - his father was American - even serving as an officer in Vietnam.
The edge to the sting lay in introducing a whiff of illegality that would appeal to the sellers. Farr told them that the Courtauld Institute could not be seen to buy back a stolen painting, and anyway did not have £2m at its disposal.
However, Hill was a wealthy American who was willing to buy the painting on the Courtauld's behalf.
It worked to perfection. The sellers were invited to meet Farr and Hill at the Savoy hotel in London. They were still asking £2m for the painting, and Hill showed them a bag containing 'show money', or the 'flash' - £100,000, the maximum the police were allowed to draw. The sellers, says Hill, 'effed and blinded and said it wasn't good enough' and walked out. The police already had ample evidence and the four men were arrested, receiving sentences of up to five years. (The Brueghel was found at the home of an alleged accomplice, who claimed he did not know it was stolen and was acquitted.) "