Art theft

John Dee’s crystal among a spate of London museum thefts

The V&A, the British Museum and Science Museum have all been targets



Four recent thefts at major London museums, in which similar techniques were used, is causing considerable concern over security. In all instances thieves broke into display cases during opening hours, seizing a number of small items. Together the losses are worth a considerable sum, but few of the individual objects had a value that would have made them known internationally.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has been hit twice, in both instances in its Ceramics Galleries. During the afternoon of 24 November, 15 small Meissen figures of the 1750s, worth over £30,000, were taken, after thieves had levered open a case. A similar technique had been used on 4 October, when nine pieces of Chinese jade, worth £60,000 ($117,000), were stolen.

Following the earlier theft, the number of guards on patrol in the Ceramics Galleries had been doubled and a new security system was planned. It was due to have been installed on 29 November, just five days after the latest break-in. Questions are now being asked about why stronger measures were not immediately introduced. In the meantime, the galleries have been temporarily closed.

The British Museum suffered a similar theft on 29 October, when 15 pieces of Chinese jewellery were taken. Dating from 700-1400 AD, they included a gold diadem, hairpins, fingernail guards, armlets, earrings and decorated mirrors—all easily portable. The loss in the long Oriental Antiquities Gallery took place on a Friday evening, when the museum is open until 8.30pm, and was only noticed the following morning. A waist-high glass case, which had no alarm, had been forced open. Displays in similar cases in the long gallery were later removed by staff. The museum immediately released a list of the missing items, and is appealing to the trade to look out for them.

The latest theft took place at the Science Museum, across the street from the V&A. At 4.30 pm on 9 December the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery was targeted. A thief broke the glass of a cabinet, taking a crystal used by John Dee in the late 16th century for clairvoyance and curing disease, along with a contemporary manuscript about the crystal by Nicholas Culpeper. These items, valued at £50,000 ($97,000), were on permanent loan from the Wellcome Medical Collection. A member of staff was alerted by the sound of breaking glass and informed security, but the thief was able to run down the stairs from the fifth floor to make his escape.