Christie’s sells miniatures stolen from public gallery

The auction house consulted stolen art databases but was not made aware of theft

LONDON. Fourteen stolen portrait miniatures were inadvertently sold in Christie’s King Street saleroom on 10 June, because their loss from a UK public gallery had not been publicised. The works were part of a private collection on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria, two years ago.

Abbot Hall is a grand house built in 1759 which was converted into an art gallery in 1962 to display British art from the 18th century to the present. The theft took place on the evening of 31 August 2006, when thieves broke into the museum and smashed an 18th-century glass-fronted cabinet, stealing 69 English portrait miniatures. The works were on loan from a distinguished local collector, whose family had collected them a century ago.

The theft was not publicised in the press, and the loss was not recorded with the Art Loss Register, which routinely checks catalogues of the major auction houses, including Christie’s. It was, however, registered with Trace, the other main computerised database of stolen art (Trace was bought in 2006 by the company MyThings), but without images. It is not known why neither Abbot Hall nor the police supplied images.

A Christie’s spokesman said: “This catalogue, like all our catalogues, was sent to both the Art Loss Register and Trace, but the stolen items were not picked up.” A Trace spokesman agreed that the miniatures had been registered and the catalogue searched, saying that the matter “is now under investigation with Christie’s”. He suggested that the lack of images from Abbot Hall had caused difficulties.

Fourteen of the 69 miniatures were offered in the Christie’s sale. These included works by John Smart, £25,000 and £30,000 ($45,000 and $54,000); Richard Cosway, £17,500 ($31,500); and Horace Hone, £15,000 ($27,000). It was only after the sale that it was realised the works were stolen.

The Art Newspaper understands that the vendor acquired and offered the works through Christie’s in good faith. The police have traced the miniatures through a chain of several buyers in the intervening two years.

Abbot Hall’s chairman Dr Adam Nailor has told us that they are “optimistic” that all 69 miniatures will now be recovered. This suggests that the others have remained with the Christie’s vendor and that only a small proportion had been put up for sale.

The whole collection had been insured when it was put on display at Abbot Hall. It is expected that the private lender will return the insurance money in exchange for the recovered miniatures.

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