How Ellis of the Yard solved the riddle of Horus

Sarah Jane Checkland on the detective whose dedication nailed crooked Egyptian antiquities restorer Jonathan Tokeley-Parry (right)
Click to follow
That one of the world's best-known restorers of Egyptian antiquities was jailed last week, in Britain's first successful prosecution of an antiquities dealer on smuggling charges, was largely thanks to the efforts of one dogged detective in Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad.

Jonathan Tokeley-Parry masqueraded as a gentleman, pontificating from the witness stand about how art should belong to the rich rather than its original owners. But the real gentleman of the piece was Detective Sergeant Richard Ellis.

He has been vilified by the antiquities trade, who resent his interference in their lucrative business. During the trial Tokeley-Parry launched a bitter personal attack on him, claiming he had ruined his life.

However Mr Ellis - a barrel-chested man who has rowed around Britain in the Metropolitan Police's heavy boats section - is not one to be daunted. One of the most colourful moments in a gripping trial were his ringing tones as the prosecution played back an interview with the defendant: "Jonathan ... be man enough to face up to what you have been doing. Have the guts to actually say yes. That is what I have been doing. Stealing antiquities, smuggling antiquities, robbing tombs and making a healthy profit. You posed as an English Army officer, a gentleman, and all you are is a crook. Be man enough to admit it." Back came the weak reply: "You said it all for me."

Mr Ellis, 47, is the longest-serving member of the art and antiques squad and has a formidable number of scalps on his belt. These include Edvard Munch's The Scream, recovered on behalf of the Norwegians in 1994, plus a clutch of paintings from Ireland's biggest art theft, including a priceless Vermeer.

Partridge Fine Art of Bond Street had Ellis of the Yard to thank for the recovery of a valuable stash of silver in 1990. Johnny van Haeften of St James's was grateful when Ellis pointed out that the painting by the Dutch artist Teniers being offered to him by a client had in fact been stolen from his neighbour, Richard Green.

When asked about last week's case Mr Ellis said: "I was just doing my job." Others are not so reticent. "He has done a great public service," said Lord Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge. "These people in the art and antiquities trade who are critical of his action should remember that all the leading dealers have signed a code of conduct saying they would not deal in antiquities where there is a likelihood that they have been illegally exported."

In his final speech, Judge Pontius "highly recommended" Mr Ellis's efforts.

The detective's Egyptian adventure began in May 1994, when curators at the British Museum rang his office. A member of the public had sent them fragments of papyrus asking if they could be translated. Recognising them as from a British Society dig at Saqqara in the 1960s, the curators asked the correspondent to show them more - and called in the Yard.

Inquiries led to Tokeley-Parry's home in Devon and to premises in Gloucestershire, Avon and Shropshire, which were raided in March 1995. A treasure trove of smuggled Chinese and Egyptian antiquities was recovered, including two 5,000-year-old Egyptian wall reliefs found beneath Mr Tokeley-Parry's bed. He had kept snapshots of his trophies, showing him sawing them up and doctoring them to look like cheap souvenirs.

One was painted with the words "Moldy (sic) old Egyptian mummy". Checks with the British Musuem indicated that they were from the tomb of a fifth dynasty official called Hetepka, supposedly sealed up in perpetuity.

Mr Ellis told Egyptian police that Hetepka's final resting place must have been raided. When the tomb was opened "the floors were littered with broken relief fragments, while the inner chamber was reduced to a mud-brick wall," Mr Ellis said.

Tokeley-Parry was difficult to pin down. As he said during evidence: "The antiquities trade is small and competitive. One of the ways one protects oneself is to conceal the identity of one's source." He used names like "The Charles Allcock Collection" when creating false provenances for smuggled treasures.

Antiquities were given nicknames such as Hamish (a Ptolomeic bronze falcon, or Horus) and George (a standing male figure). It was hard to tell truth from falsehood. As Paul Dodgson for the prosecution said: "He lied and lied and lied."

Tokeley-Parry went through six barristers and three solicitors. It is significant that his last solicitor was Philip Barden, who also represents the Antiquity Dealers Association. For them, much hung on this case.

Now it is over, a number the association's members can expect a call from Mr Ellis - with further questions about the objects they have been trading in.