It has been described as one of the greatest scandals in the history of the V&A, as well as one of the longest series of museum thefts conducted by a single person in London history.
In 1954, it was revealed that 58 year-old John Andrew Nevin, a long-time employee at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in Kensington, had been stealing thousands of objects from the museum for more than 20 years. Even more extraordinarily, he used them to furnish his own house. So how did he do it, and how did he manage to get away with it for so long?
Nevin began working at the V&A in 1930. Soon he was trusted enough to gain access to areas containing rare materials, without supervision. The opportunity for theft had been created. He began using the V&A like a free Ikea. He took 20 swords, jade figures, and rare watches. He also swiped a 300-year-old tapestry. Nevin’s wife Mary was aware of the scheme and had mixed feelings, but ultimately accepted it, even using a rare 19th century tortoiseshell bag for shopping.
The ministry of silly walks
Nevin’s methods for lifting things out of the museum included hiding items inside his own clothes. But he knew he needed a cover story. Walking in a strange and uncomfortable way? Why, it’s just the result of some injuries from my Army days, he would tell others. Nothing, of course, to do with the ornaments and dismantled pieces of furniture he had hidden in his jacket and socks. When other V&A employees looked back on Nevin after the revelations, they realised some of his other behaviour had been suspicious too: how could he have afforded to buy all the things he claimed to own? No-one put two and two together at the time.
He stole HOW many objects?
It was only in late 1953 that Nevin’s scheme began to unravel, when a stocktake of the museum showed that many objects were missing. Investigators eventually worked out that Nevin was the only one with access to all the things that had disappeared, and police were sent to his Chiswick home. Panic mode! After the first visit, the Nevins desperately tried to hide the stolen goods, sticking them in all sorts of bizarre locations including their vacuum cleaner. It didn’t work. A second police search found more of the missing items and the Nevins were arrested. It was eventually estimated that the V&A employee had taken as many as a staggering 2,000 items over the years. Charges were only brought on a limited number of those.
Too beautiful for you?
The case came before the courts in the summer of 1954. Mary eventually pled guilty to 10 charges of handling stolen goods, for which she received a custodial sentence, while John himself confessed to 25 charges of theft and got three years in prison. He presented a statement to the court stating “taking the things became an obsession as I was attracted by the beauty of them” and that he just couldn’t help himself because of how beautiful they were. Needless to say, the V&A was unimpressed by this ‘defence’ — especially as Nevin had dismantled and destroyed many objects. Nevin’s curtains turned out to be fabric made by the artist Duncan Grant, which the couple had torn and re-sewn.
The 29 spoons he thought might make all the difference
After he was released from jail, Nevin attempted to cooperate and return some items. However, he had an ulterior motive: he hoped doing so would help him be eligible for a pension. But most of the missing items never resurfaced, and his most notable return ended up being the grand total of… 29 spoons. No surprise that this attempt to get himself a pension did not work.