Chinese antiques theft gang jailed

 

Three members of a gang who stole millions of pounds worth of Chinese antiques from a museum in an act of 'cultural vandalism' have been jailed for six years each.

The four-strong gang carried out a professionally planned raid to steal the pre-selected items from Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum on April 13.

They took eighteen irreplaceable 'culturally significant' jade artefacts, worth an estimated total of between £5 million and £15 million.

The ancient items are believed to have been sold to rich private collectors and may never be seen again.

Today, passing sentence at Cambridge Crown Court, Mr Justice Fulford described the raid as an act of "cultural vandalism".

The judge said: "This resulted in the loss to the museum and the public at large, not only in this country but across the world, of pieces of incalculable cultural significance and many millions of pounds in monetary value.

"The likelihood is they passed into private hands and will not be seen again for many generations, if at all.

"Save for the individuals or individual who commissioned this raid, they are effectively lost forever.

"They are rare and beautiful objects and I draw the irresistible inference that they have gone or will go to one or more private collectors."

Steven Coughlan, 25, of Gypsies Residential Site, in Eleanor Street, Bow, east London, Robert Smith, 24, of Rosedale Stables, Swanley, Kent, and a 29-year-old man from London, who cannot be named for legal reasons, will each serve six years after admitting conspiracy to burgle.

Marvin Simos, 16, of Hanameel Street, Victoria Dock, London, admitted burglary. He was sentenced to a four month detention and training order.

The haul has never been recovered and some of the items may have been damaged as the gang fled, the court heard.

Defence counsel told the court "others higher up the chain", who have not been identified, recruited the men to target the jade exhibits.

Among the items stolen were six pieces from the Ming dynasty, including a 16th century carved jade buffalo, a carved horse from the 17th century and a green and brown jade elephant.

A jade cup and vase, which is carved with bronze designs, was also stolen, along with an opaque jade brush washer.

David Scrase, acting director of the Fitzwilliam, said in a statement read to the court that the raid had damaged the museum's precious reputation for "guarding treasures".

He added that staff had been shocked by the "brutal" destruction of the Chinese gallery.

"The case has caused tremendous shock to the staff. They are concerned in case there is a further burglary, certainly if it were to take place during the daytime," Mr Scrase said.

The museum has spent nearly £16,000 repairing the damage.

Prosecutor Peter Gair said none of the defendants had helped police identify where the artefacts might be.

"The conspiracy clearly involved others not known to the prosecution," Mr Gair said.

"It is very difficult to value these items but various estimates place the value at between £5 million and £15 million.

"Clearly many of these items were deliberately targeted by the defendants because others which could have been taken were not."

A disc cutter was used to create a hole in a metal shutter before smashing a window, he said.

Two men entered the building where they forced open two reinforced display cases.

All of the group, apart from Simos, had been caught on CCTV before the raid, examining the cabinets.

They were traced using this footage, a fingerprint taken from a brochure which had been handled by the 29-year-old the day before the burglary, and DNA evidence linked to Simos.

Mitigating, Alexander Taylor-Camara said the 29-year-old claimed he had been pressurised into taking part and was not a "professional burglar".

He added: "Other were involved in this and he is not somebody with a treasure trove stashed away for future use."

Glenn Harris, for Coughlan, said: "He has lived a pitiful existence and has had problems with drink and cannabis since the age of 11 and class A drugs since the age of 16."

He had been released from prison for another offence just eight days before the burglary.

Beata Kopel said her client, Smith, was of limited intellect and had never attended secondary school. He was not physically involved in the burglary but took part in its planning.

Simos accepted that he had breached two earlier conditional discharges.

His barrister, Peter Caldwell, said: "He did not enter the building.

"He was recruited the afternoon before the burglary and does not know what happened after it.

"He was thoroughly exploited and was selected for his naivety."

Each of the men had previous convictions.

PA

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