Thefts News United Kingdom

Centenary of Great War could fuel theft of historic artefacts, police say

Members of the trade downplay the threat because the market for objects from the First World War is small

One of the lots in Bonhams' centenary sale on 24 September, the Gold Albert Medal awarded posthumously to Second Lieutenant Grey de Leche Leach, Scots Guards. He died after saving his comrades in a grenade incident at Morlancourt, France, 3 September 1916. Estimate £10,000-£15,000

Police in Britain are warning that First World War memorabilia is at increased risk of theft this year, the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914. Experts cited in a report published by the Association of Chief Police Officers say that the anniversary could “drive demand for heritage assets” and that thefts from museums and battlefields are “increasingly likely”.

Members of the trade are downplaying the threat, however; they say that the market for First World War artefacts is relatively small and that historic objects are worth much less without provenance documents, so stealing an item without its related paperwork would not prove lucrative.

Jon Baddeley, the managing director of Bonhams Knightsbridge, which is due to hold a First World War centenary sale on 24 September, acknowledges that commemorative events over the next five years will increase interest in the market. Personal items that tell of life in the trenches are among the most sought after, he says. For example, a letter from an unknown British soldier to his mother, describing the Christmas Day truce in 1914, sold for £14,400 at Bonhams in 2006. But a Victoria Cross, the highest military award for valour, which is worth £250,000 with documents linking it to a specific individual, would fetch “almost nothing” without provenance, Baddeley says.

The risk of theft is minimal in the lower and middle tiers of the market, says David Cohen, one of only a handful of art dealers in Britain to specialise in First World War memorabilia. However, he says the threat to museums that house valuable objects “could be very real”. But William Brown, the national security adviser at Arts Council England, says he has “not received any specific intelligence” that First World War artefacts in museums are in danger.

War memorials are also at risk because of an increase in the theft of base metals, the police report says. “The majority of crimes committed against the historic environment are not committed by organised criminal gangs—they are committed by individuals following the path of least resistance to easy cash,” the report says. It notes, for example, that a sculpture by Henry Moore worth £500,000 ($820,000), which was stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire in 2012, was later sold to a scrap-metal dealer for £46.50 ($76).

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