Duchess of Windsor jewellery stolen in pounds 4m-plus London raid

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GEMS worth pounds 4m to pounds 6m have been stolen in what is believed to be the world's largest theft of jewellery. The missing pieces include some once owned by the Duchess of Windsor.

Diamond-encrusted necklaces and sapphire-studded ear-rings are among spectacular items stolen from a private collector in Belgravia, London.

Some 250 pieces were taken, among them the Duchess of Windsor's gold Cartier bracelet, lovingly inscribed 'Wallis from David November 1946 More & more', and a diamond and turquoise brooch, shaped like a turtle with eyes of rubies, once in Andy Warhol's collection.

Others bear the names of this century's most important designers, including Boucheron and Van Cleef and Arpels.

Neither the police nor the Art Loss Register, which has added the jewels to its database of stolen works of art, would reveal the victim's identity - beyond that she is a member of a Middle Eastern royal family. Her taste in jewellery reveals only a fondness for animals, particularly turtles and parrots. Some items were acquired at auction, others were commissioned. Because many of the jewels are well-documented, and well-known to the trade, there is concern that they may be broken up.

However, Caroline Wakeford, operations manager of the Art Loss Register, said: 'Because many of these are one-off pieces, their value lies in their design.' She singled out, for example, a pair of ear-rings with detachable parts - tassles of finely beaded rubies that can be interchanged with beads of sapphires or emeralds. 'If this was plain, modern jewellery,' she said, 'it would perhaps be broken up for the gems.'

Delicate Cartier watches, though bejewelled, are unlikely to suffer that fate as it would lessen their value, according to one police officer. He added that, in the light of experience, the jewels have probably been smuggled out of Britain. Police forces in other countries are co-operating with the Metropolitan Police and auction houses and dealers have been alerted by the Art Loss Register. Ms Wakeford said: 'Once the interest cools down, should they appear on the market, they will be easily recognised. It is unlikely that these pieces in the Belgravia theft were stolen to order for a jewellery collector. They may have been stolen for the gems' monetary value.'

However, the passion of collectors cannot be underestimated: captivated by the romance of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, as much as the jewellery itself, buyers sent the total at Sotheby's 1987 auction in Geneva of the Duchess of Windsor's jewels soaring to pounds 31m against the expected pounds 5m. Sotheby's 1988 Warhol sale topped pounds 47m, far exceeding its original pounds 22m estimate.

The Belgravia theft was a highly professional job. The thieves knew exactly what they were looking for, leaving behind paste pieces. Although the best items were not locked in a safe, they were in various parts of the large house. There were no signs of a break-in.

James Emson, managing director of the Art Loss Register, said that, though insured, the victim was desperate to retrieve the pieces.