Art theft

Question in Parliament uncovers extensive losses regarding thefts from UK national museums

13 paintings from the National Maritime Museum, a £100,000 chest from the British Museum, and a Burne-Jones panel from the V&A are some of the items stolen



Arts Minister Mr Alan Howarth has revealed details of objects stolen from Britain’s national museums during the past decade. This is the first time that such comprehensive information has been released on thefts.

Responding to a Parliamentary Question from Gordon Prentice MP, the minister responded with a letter which listed all items which are “missing, stolen or otherwise unaccounted for” from national collections.

Although no details were given about the circumstances, The Art Newspaper has picked out the more important works of art and we are able to add further information. The data excludes stolen items which were subsequently recovered.

Our inquiries reveal that two paintings from the Imperial War Museum went missing from the residence of a senior Ministry of Defence official. We are also able to reveal details of two unannounced thefts from the Victoria and Albert Museum last summer, both lost from the same gallery within three weeks of each other in apparently unrelated incidents.

Although Mr Howarth’s list includes the Tate’s Turners, stolen from a Frankfurt exhibition (worth £24 million and fully insured), there fortunately appear to be no single items worth much above £100,000. It is also noticeable that more of the losses occurred during the first half than the second half of the 1990s. Nevertheless, Mr Prentice is critical of the extent of the thefts and is seeking further details from Mr Howarth. “It’s a disgrace that these hugely significant items walk through the doors of these museums,” he commented. Publicity about stolen items does increase the chances of a recovery, and any further information should be sent to the relevant museum.


British Museum A Japanese seventeenth-century Kakiemon porcelain figure, stolen from a gallery in 1990. Two Meiji ivory figures, stolen from a basement store in 1991. A fragment of a gold ring, missing from a store in 1991. Fifteen Roman coins, stolen from a gallery in 1993. An Ashanti gold pectoral disc, stolen from the Museum of Mankind in 1993. A Japanese chest (worth around £100,000) and two Persian book covers (worth around £100,000), stolen from conservation premises in 1996.

Imperial War Museum Two paintings by Stuart Reid (“Lieutenant McNamara winning the VC” and “The Bott Incident”), missing when on loan to the residence of a senior Ministry of Defence official, 1996.

National Maritime Museum Thirteen paintings (Adriaen Van Salm, “Dutch Whalers in the ice”; William Knell, “A royal yacht leaving Plymouth”; Richard Spencer, “A ship in a gale approaching the Lizard” and “The ship Lock Katrine”; John Fraser, “Fishing boats”; Stephen Bone, “HMS Pursuer”; and seven works by unidentified artists, “Royal Arms with Portraits of Hood”, “A Baltimore Schooner”, “A Blackwall frigate”, “A Seventeenth Century Scene”, “A clipper before the Wind”, “The Barque Ellsworth” and “The schooner yacht Galatea”). These pictures, from the reserve store, were worth £90,000. The loss, which may have occurred in the 1980s, was recently identified during an audit and has now been reported to the police. Investigations are currently underway.

Tate Gallery Two paintings by Turner (“Shade and darkness” and “Light and colour”), stolen in Frankfurt in 1994 (£24 million in insurance money was subsequently paid). A sculpture by John Chamberlain, “Koko-Nor II” (1967), went missing from a Tate store in around 1990.

Victoria and Albert Museum A gold ring and other items, stolen from Ham House in 1991 (worth £26,000). A gold mounted tortoiseshell snuff box inlaid with gold and other snuffboxes, a tortoiseshell powderflask with pique decoration in silver, an oval tortoiseshell brooch inlaid with gold and silver, stolen in 1991 (£16,000). A brass eagle on loan to the Wellington Museum in Waterloo, Belgium, was stolen in 1993 (£5,000). A panel by Burne-Jones, stolen from the museum’s William Morris Green Dining Room in 1994 (worth £40,000). A seventeenth-century painting of a river scene by a follower of Jan van Goyen, stolen while on loan to Forty Hall, Enfield in 1994 (£20,000). Two bracelets, stolen while on loan to the Crafts Council, 1995 (worth £30,000). A Japanese print by Ishikawa Toyomasa of “The ninth month of elegant pastimes” was stolen in transit in 1996 (£7,000). A bronze figure of a centaur by Francesco Righetti, stolen from a gallery, 1999 (£25,000). A Chinese porcelain vase with French ormolu mounts, stolen from a gallery, 1999 (worth £10,000). Plus other minor objects.

National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, National Museum of Science & Industry, Natural History Museum and the Royal Armouries Non-art items missing.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Question in Parliament uncovers extensive losses'