Gangs target historic homes for porcelain works of art

An Englishman's home has traditionally been his castle. But stately homeowners are under siege from gangs of thieves, who are breaking in and stealing valuable porcelain items, a criminal expert has said. The former senior Scotland Yard officer warned the owners of England's most beautiful houses to tighten security after the wave of thefts.

The home of Sir Reginald Sheffield – the father of Samantha Cameron – is believed to be one of those targeted by the gangs. And, in the most serious in the wave of thefts, porcelain antiques worth around £500,000 were stolen from Firle Place in Sussex.

The former head of Scotland Yard's arts and antiques unit, Dick Ellis, said that gangs were using the internet to find out what items were on view in which stately homes and then using online auction sites to sell the goods. "They are taking advantage of the goodwill of these people, many of whom open their homes to the public," he said.

Mr Ellis added: "It is not a case of closing the attractions but owners need to increase security. They need high-quality CCTV and motion and acoustic sensors on the windows because they are dealing with sophisticated methods of breaking and entering."

Mr Ellis estimates that three highly professional gangs are responsible for at least 21 major burglaries and 15 attempted burglaries in the past three years. Mystery still surrounds the raids, from which few items have ever been recovered. It is unclear why the thieves would target porcelain artworks, which are relatively difficult to move without damaging, as Mr Ellis said: "Few burglars carry bubble-wrap."

Firle Place, owned by the family of a London art dealer, was burgled last July by thieves who used a ladder to break into the 18th century mansion at night. They climbed through a window and broke into two display cases, making off with a 1743 Meissen statue by Johann Joachim Kändler, The Indiscreet Harlequin, and a rare Sèvres Hollandois Nouveau vase, made in 1761, as well as 18 works, none of which have been recovered.

Among the other houses to be targeted are Sutton Park, near York, Longner Hall in Shrewsbury and Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, all of which are open to the public.

At least £20,000 worth of porcelain items were stolen from the Georgian Sutton Park, owned by Mrs Cameron's family since 1963. Thieves took a Meissen teapot shaped like a monkey – said to have been in the family for two centuries – and a 19th-century bronze bust of an Asian woman by Charles Cordier, The Art Newspaper reported.

It is thought that the burglars spent less than a minute in the house during the May 2009 raid and had already identified the items they were to steal. The house had also been the subject of an attempted burglary earlier that year. A 28-piece Worcester dessert service was taken during the raid on Longner Hall last August.

Mr Ellis said he believed that the thefts were the work of three gangs: one which targeted houses at night, removing sections from windows; another which typically forced a door or window open, creating a gap through which a small gang-member squeezed; and one which targeted country houses open to visitors.

He added that he felt that, since few of the pieces have been recovered, the thieves had shipped their loot to Europe, where Meissen and Sèvres are highly collectable.

"Instead of laying the haul down, and gradually feeding it down into the market, the recent trend is instant disposal," said Mr Ellis.

There have been few arrests linked to the thefts. Mr Ellis, who works with the Art Management Group – which helps those seeking to buy or recover art and antiques – blamed that lack of success on Britain's police forces being "run on a county basis".

"No force has an overview of similar crimes occurring elsewhere, so investigations are limited and local. Little progress has been made in tackling this surge in porcelain thefts," added Mr Ellis, whose work was commissioned by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

He was also at a loss to explain why the thieves would begin targeting porcelain, the market for which has remained stable.

Stately homes under siege

Firle Place, East Sussex

The seat of Lord Gage was raided in 2009 and a haul of items worth between £500,000 and £1m stolen. None of the 20 works have ever been recovered. The house has been burgled on two other occasions. In 2001 two antique tables worth more than £10,000 were taken during an open day, and in 2004 antiques worth £100,000 were stolen. Perhaps surprisingly, the house remains open to the public.

Sutton Park, North Yorkshire

Owned by David Cameron's father-in-law, it was looted in 2009. Thieves took 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 house has been in Samantha Cameron's family since 1963. The house, which has award-winning gardens and tearooms, is available for hire and occasionally opens to the public.

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

The backdrop for numerous films, including the 2008 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Peter Ustinov's Lady L and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, it was also the subject of an attempted robbery by Andrew Shannon, an Irishman who stole antiques and paintings from six English stately homes on a "long weekend of crime" in 2009. Shannon was jailed for three years after his attempted theft was foiled by a Castle Howard caretaker during a visit to the attraction.

Longner Hall, Shropshire

Longner Hall, designed for the Burton family by John Nash in 1803, was burgled last year. The thieves made off with a 28-piece Worcester dessert service. The house remains open to the public.

Penshurst Place, Kent

The ancestral home of the Sidney family, whose most illustrious member was the Elizabethan soldier-poet Sir Philip Sidney, was burgled despite its current owner, Viscount De L'Isle, previously having decided to nail the house's tapestries to the walls. It is still open to the public.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks