Burglars ransack art collection of millionaire recluse

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The Independent Online

He has been called Britain's Howard Hughes; a reclusive property tycoon who for 40 years has sought refuge behind the walls of his Wiltshire mansion.

But late on Wednesday night, the privacy of Harry Hyams, famed for building the Centrepoint tower in central London in the Sixties, was shattered when he became the victim of one of the biggest burglaries in the country's history.

Thieves forced their way into the 17th-century mansion on his 600-acre estate and stole millions of pounds worth of art. Among the hundreds of items taken are thought to be paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian, and a 1675 clock.

Mr Hyams, 78, has an estimated fortune of £320m. He and his wife, Kay, were away from their home in Ramsbury Manor, near Marlborough, at the time of the burglary.

The gang broke in through a downstairs window and searched the property in a "methodical" way - suggesting they knew what they were looking for.

Mr Hyams' chauffeur disturbed the raiders who tripped an alarm, but by the time the police arrived the thieves had fled in two cars. They took with them paintings, clocks, porcelain and other antiques that Mr Hyams has been collecting for the past 50 years.

The burglary has shone the media spotlight on a man who has refused to give an interview for more than 40 years, and is said to hate having his photo taken.

Ranked the 155th richest person in Britain in The Times Rich List for 2005, Mr Hyams made his fortune through property and land speculation. Born in north London, his father's bookmaking business prospered and he went to private school before becoming a junior clerk at an estate agency in 1944.

With the financial backing of his family, he began making property deals of his own and was a millionaire within a decade.

In 1954 he paid £59,000 for a bomb site off Piccadilly in London's West End and the plot doubled in value when the Government scrapped building restrictions a week later.

His wealth accelerated in 1959 when he bought out a small property company called Oldham Estates for £50,000. By 1988 the company wasworth £150m.

He is best known for building the 385ft Centrepoint office block in central London in the 1960s at a cost of £5.5m. It remained empty for six years, prompting Peter Walker, the Environment Secretary in 1972, to condemn him for the "incredible scandal" of the empty building.

The tycoon bought Ramsbury Manor in 1964 for £650,000, the highest price paid for a private house in Britain at the time. He married Kathleen Hoey, always known as Kay, in 1954. The couple have no children.

Since moving into the mansion, which was built for the Attorney General to King Charles II, Mr Hymas has rarely been seen and does not open his house or grounds to the public.

He reportedly once turned up for an AGM of his company, Oldham Estates, wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. Another time, he put on a black mask when he saw a photographer.

In 1972 he offered an explanation for his desire for privacy. He said: "The image of the property man is of a land speculator and shark. This is rubbish. Often the profit on huge deals is tiny but, while the nasty image is perpetuated, I do not wish it to spill over into my private life."

Detective Sergeant Adrian Davis, leading the inquiry by Wiltshire Police, said that the burglary was discovered at around 10.40pm on Wednesday. The thieves are thought to have approached via the entrance in Axford village.

The estate gates were all locked but they forced a padlock on a gate about 400 metres from the house.

DS Davis said: "During the burglary some hundreds of items were stolen, including silver, porcelain, clocks and some paintings.

"The items, which are of great rarity and are of museum quality, represent 50 years of passionate and knowledgeable collecting by the owner, Mr Hyams, whose overriding concern is for the safety of these extremely fragile objects."

A spokesman for Mr Hyams, who was thought to have returned to the house yesterday, said: "Happily, nobody was injured and the police are actively following up leads. Everything that has been taken is readily identifiable, is of museum quality and will be extremely difficult to dispose of."