Matchstick men, manhole cover: masked robbers steal Lowry works

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The Independent Online

With his roller shutters and sophisticated alarm system, the proprietor of Cheshire's new top-end art gallery thought his works by L S Lowry, Helen Bradley and Sir Terry Frost were safe when he opened for business a week ago. But Bill Clark hadn't counted on masked robbers armed with a cast-iron manhole cover.

The gang heaved the cover out of a pavement a quarter of a mile away from the Clark Art Gallery, in the village of Hale, and hurled it through the plate glass front window to secure access, having tried and failed to run a wooden plank through the gallery's windows. Once inside, the thieves picked out 15 paintings. A Lowry oil, that Mr Clark had sold for £115,000, was among three pieces by the Salford artist that were taken, along with Frost's Red Wedge, valued at £52,000.

The gallery is the only commercial establishment in the North specialising in high-value modern British art. With works ranging from artists of the St Ives school to Lowry, it aims to tap into the high-rollers of south Manchester's commuter belt.

"The five Lowrys which the gang left behind were not as good as those they took, so they knew what they were doing," said Mr Clark, who especially mourns the loss of Two Women with Children, a small but rare 1950s Lowry oil. "They have obviously cased the joint surreptitiously - we've had 200 people around here in our first week. They knew exactly what they were taking."

The use of a manhole cover in the raid, carried out at around 1am on Wednesday, does not quite surpass the most audacious art theft of the past 12 months, in which a Mercedes flatbed lorry was used to remove a two-ton Henry Moore sculpture from Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. But the raid, carried out by three men aged 18 to 25 who made off in a black Saab estate, was still a highly professional one, according to police. The thieves were spotted by local residents but were in and out of the gallery within three minutes.

Their choice of pictures is a reflection of the soaring demand for Lowry (1887-1976), one of the most collectable British artists. The value of his work has been increasing at between 20 and 25 per cent a year recently. A reward of £25,000 has been offered for the paintings.

"They are all extremely distinctive and it is likely that the offenders may approach known dealers to sell them," said Detective Constable Neil Rothwell. In the meantime, news of the theft has yet to be broken to the collector who had just bought the most expensive Lowry. "He doesn't know it's gone yet because he is in France and I can't contact him," said Mr Clark.