Monkey business by porcelain gangs leaves stately homes counting cost
Ben Hoyle and Jack Malvern
England’s stately homes are being targeted by thieves with a penchant for antique porcelain — and their victims include the Prime Minister’s father in law.
There have been at least 21 major thefts and 15 attempted robberies in the past three years The Art Newspaper reports this week.
Dick Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit, said that three organised gangs, each with a distinctive style, were believed to be behind the thefts.
One gang relies on an unusually small burglar to squeeze through narrow openings; another operates at night, often using a ladder, and removes sections of glass from windows; the third targets country houses open to visitors, using very rapid, forced entry. Gangs often also take curtains and cushions to use as packing for the fragile porcelain, though some pieces are damaged during thefts.
Mr Ellis assembled the data for the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which is handling the most serious case, at Firle Place in Sussex, where £500,000 of porcelain was stolen last summer. Others include Sutton Park, North Yorkshire, the home of Sir Reginald Sheffield, the father of Samantha Cameron, the Prime Minister’s wife.
Firle Place was burgled on July 19, 2009. Thieves entered the 18th-century mansion on the Sussex Downs at night. They climbed a ladder, entered via a window and broke into two display cabinets. Among the losses were a Meissen statue, The Indiscreet Harlequin, around 1743, by Johann Kändler, and a rare Sèvres Hollandois Nouveau vase of 1761. None of the 20 pieces has been recovered. Firle Place is owned by the family of the London old-master dealer Deborah Gage.
The theft at Sutton Park was on May 21, 2009. The Georgian house has been owned by the Sheffield family since 1963. Like Firle Place, it is open to visitors. Objects stolen included a £20,000 Meissen teapot in the form of a monkey, and a 19th-century bronze bust of an Asian woman by Charles Cordier. The thieves spent no longer than a minute inside the house. On April 17 there had been an attempted burglary in the porcelain room.
Mr Ellis believes that the thieves dispose of the porcelain quickly. Some use eBay, as with 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 and Mr Ellis suspects that many have gone to Europe, where Meissen and Sèvres are highly collectable. Items may well be sold at large antiques fairs in England, usually within a few days of the theft, and passed to unsuspecting Continental dealers. There have been very few arrests.
“British police forces are run on a county basis,” Mr Ellis said. “No force has an overview of similar crimes occurring elsewhere, so investigations are limited and local.”
Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, which enables people to find out whether items are stolen, said thieves had learnt that porcelain dealers were less assiduous than others in making checks. Criminals probably gain their knowledge of the market from dealers on the fringes. “In Ireland they would call them tinkers,” he said.
Burton Agnes Hall (Historic Houses Association) East Yorkshire
Castle Howard (HHA) North Yorkshire
Cusworth Hall South Yorkshire
Firle Place (HHA) East Sussex
Grantham House (National Trust) Lincolnshire
Hastings Museum East Sussex
Lanhydrock (NT) Cornwall
Longner Hall (HHA) Shropshire
Munstead House Surrey
Penshurst Place Kent
Private house Surrey
Private house West Yorkshire
Redbrick Mill West Yorkshire
Shugborough Hall (NT) Staffs
Sion Hill Hall (HHA) North Yorkshire
Sutton Park (HHA) North Yorkshire
The Hoo Hertfordshire
Temple Newsam West Yorkshire
Thorpe Hall East Yorkshire
Uppark (NT) West Sussex
West Green House (NT, tenanted) Hampshire