Porcelain robbers target historic houses
Victims include prime minister’s father-in-law and an old master art dealer
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 31 May 2010
london. England’s stately homes are being targeted by organised gangs who are stealing important porcelain pieces, with at least 21 major cases in the past three years, according to a leading criminal expert. The list has been assembled by Dick Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit. The data was commissioned by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which is handling the most serious case, at Firle Place in Sussex, where porcelain worth £500,000 was seized last summer. Other targets include Sutton Park, the home of Sir Reginald Sheffield—the father of Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife.
The list includes 21 major thefts since 2007, with a further 15 attempted robberies. Most have been at country houses—many of which are open to the public.
Firle Place was burgled on 19 July 2009. The break-in occurred at night, when thieves entered the 18th-century mansion on the Sussex Downs, which is regularly opened to the public. After climbing a ladder, they entered via a window and broke into two display cabinets. Among the losses were a valuable Meissen statue, The Indiscreet Harlequin, around 1743, by Johann Kändler, and a rare Sèvres Hollandois Nouveau vase of 1761. None of the 20 pieces have been recovered. Firle Place is owned by the family of London old-master dealer Deborah Gage, no stranger to enforcing strict security measures.
The theft at Sutton Park, near York, took place on 21 May 2009. The Georgian house, owned by the Sheffield family since 1963, is also open to visitors. A Meissen teapot in the form of a monkey worth £20,000 was taken, which had been in the family for two centuries. A late 19th-century bronze bust of an Asian woman by Charles Cordier was also seized. The criminals seemed to know exactly what they were after, and spent no longer than one minute inside the house. On 17 April there had been an attempted burglary in the porcelain room.
Ellis has identified three gangs, who appear to be responsible for most of the 36 thefts and attempted break-ins. The first operates at night, removing sections of glass from windows, often with the use of a ladder (it may have been responsible for the Firle Place and Sutton Park losses). The second gang, which forces its way through a door or window, includes a very small person who is able to squeeze into narrow openings. The third targets country houses open to visitors, using very rapid forced entry. All three gangs are highly professional. There have generally been few porcelain thefts during the winter, which may explain why no cases have yet been recorded this year.
Ellis believes that the thieves dispose of the porcelain quickly: “Instead of laying the haul down, and gradually feeding it down into the market, the recent trend is instant disposal,” he says. Ebay is sometimes used, as after the theft from Longner Hall in Shrewsbury last August, when losses included a 28-piece Worcester dessert service.
Most of the stolen pieces have not been recovered, however, which leads Ellis to suspect that many have gone abroad, primarily to Europe, where Meissen and Sèvres is highly collectable. Items may well be sold at large antiques fairs in England, usually within a few days of the theft, and then passed to unsuspecting Continental dealers.
Crime specialists are surprised that porcelain is being targeted, since it is extremely fragile, making it difficult to remove safely during a raid. “Few burglars carry bubble-wrap,” notes Ellis. The legitimate porcelain market is relatively stable, so the rising thefts are not the result of a booming market and the reason for the spate of incidents remains something of a mystery.
There have been very few arrests for the recent thefts. “British police forces are run on a county basis,” says Ellis. “No force has an overview of similar crimes occurring elsewhere, so investigations are limited and local. Little progress has been made in tackling this surge in porcelain thefts.”
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