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How To Attempt To Recover Stolen Antiques

If you have recently been burgled then the first thing to accept is that sadly the chance of you ever recovering your property will be very slim.  You should immediately concentrate on making your property as secure as possible and so reduce the chances of a second burglary.  Keep in mind that there is a significant probability that the same burglar may try again in the future, unless you immediately take action to prevent this.

I have never been burgled but in 2000 my elderly aunt was robbed in the night.  It was a truly horrible event and a large assortment of family relics (antiques) disappeared.  My aunt had never taken much in the way of security precautions, so the burglar was able to just climb through a downstairs window and take what he wanted.  His only limitation being how much he could carry.  In fact he was so pleased that he came back two weeks later and stole a second hoard.

On the morning of the first burglary, my aunt called me and I immediately drove over, arriving just in time to see the police, as they were leaving.  They confirmed that my aunt had definitely been burgled but they said they were rather limited in what they could do, as she was rather unsure of exactly what had been stolen.  She had no photographs or any written record of what she had owned.  She was 80 years old and not really very with it.

A few years earlier I had taken a number of photographs of my aunt's pictures but other than that I could not add much more.  Most of what was stolen was of important family historical value and some of the items were also of high monetary value.  They were a wide assortment of relics that had been passed down in the family, including some miniature portraits of some of my ancestors and their relatives. 

I decided that I must do everything possible to try and recover what I could.  Little did I know at that point in time that this was going to take me on a very long journey.  What I found out was that the chance of recovering stolen goods is almost zero but I had a few successes and I made a lot of very interesting discoveries along the way.  The following is an overview of what I did and what I learned.

Landscape by Jan Both - stolen from the property
Landscape by Jan Both - stolen from the property

What I did and what I learned

The police asked if I could possibly help them by at least producing a list of what I thought might have been taken.  I immediately set to and made up a list of the items that I knew with images of those items that I had photos of.  The police then put this on file and issued me with a Crime Reference Number.  This list and the reference number later on turned out to be quite important.

I must say that the police were very helpful but immediately I sensed that they had limited resources and solving a burglary was not going to be top of their list of things to do.  Their forensic expert did visit the property on the following day and searched for finger prints but sadly without success.

The police noted that there had not been any crime in the village in the last 20 years and so their assumption was that the crime was not likely to have been committed by anyone who lived permanently in the village.  So who was now in the village but not living in the village?

The neighbour's house was being rebuilt by a team of builders.  These builders were not local to the village.  One of them might have been the guilty party but of course they might not have.  The police interviewed a few people who they felt 'might be able to help them with their enquiries'.  As partly expected, this did not result in anything fruitful.

After the second burglary my aunt did finally accept that she needed a burglar alarm.  I immediately had this fitted and she was able to live out her last few years without any more burglaries.

After completing the list of stolen items for the police, I started looking into what else I could do.  I came across two organisations which presented themselves as recording stolen artworks with the objective being to help recovery.  One was called the Art Loss Register and the other was called Trace.  In both cases I sent them a list of the stolen paintings and I paid some money towards the cost of them running their respective businesses.  Neither achieved anything for me and as time went on I came to the conclusion that the main part of their business model, was recording losses and collecting fees.  Even though their registration fees were quite high it was fairly obvious that they would not really have the resources to go off and actively search for my lost family treasures.

Landscape by Jan Van Goyen - stolen from the property
Landscape by Jan Van Goyen - stolen from the property

I had assumed that the police had a detailed national database of stolen goods.  Later on I was to find out that each police force has a list of sorts but it is very basic and only lists local thefts.  What this means is that, if an item is stolen in London and recovered in Manchester, the police will not be able to identify it.  The police in Manchester would hold onto it for a period of time after which, not being claimed, the item would be sold by auction.  So the chance of the police finding your stolen goods is not very high.

In 2000 the internet was evolving at an incredible speed.  To help me learn more about how the internet worked, I decided to build a website relating to my family history.  This was great fun.  I put up various pages including some biographical notes on various ancestors.  I also included pictures of the stolen portrait miniatures.  I hoped that someone might recognise the items and help me to recover them.  No one ever did but there was an unexpected silver lining.  I learned an awful lot about how the internet worked and in 2005 I launched a successful internet company.

For your interest, my family history website is very old but is still going www.jjhc.info .  The internet company is www.localsurveyorsdirect.co.uk and is a price comparison website operating in the residential property market.  It has grown steadily and is now used by over 200,000 people every year.

By 2005 (5 years after the burglary) a lot of auction companies had started launching websites and around this time a number of amalgamation websites started to appear.  The special thing about these amalgamation websites was that they would pull in all the items being sold by the individual auctions.  In other words, you could got to one website and search through all the lots in all the auctions.  I started taking a quick look each weekend, searching on various family names to see what would come up.  This was fantastic!  On a few occasions I actually unearthed some family portraits that I had never seen before.  I immediately bought them and they are now hanging on the wall in my dining room.

I carried on looking every weekend and in 2010 (10 years after the burglary) I stumbled across one of my late aunt's miniatures being auctioned by Bonhams in London (my aunt had died in 2005).  This item was a portrait of my great x 4 grandfather John Hesketh (1750-1815).  He now looked very different, having been cleaned and reframed but he was still recognisable.  I was over joyed but recovery proved not to be as straight forward as I had expected.

Oval Miniature Portrait of Abraham Crompton - stolen from the property
Oval Miniature Portrait of Abraham Crompton - stolen from the property

2010 The Recovery of John Hesketh

I phoned Bonhams and talked to their expert.  Her initial response was polite but she told me that the item was being sold by a 'Reputable Dealer' and before she could take any action, I would have to 'prove' that it was stolen.  Other than that, she could not comment further.

My next call was to the police.  Initially they could not discuss the matter in detail, as the file had been placed in 'storage' (this was a hangover from the days of printed paper!).  I was able to give them the Crime Reference Number and a few days later a policeman contacted me.  He confirmed that he now had the file but he then told me that the item on my list did not look the same as the item for sale via Bonhams.  I explained that the miniature portrait had since been cleaned and reframed.  He told me that it still looked different and could it be a copy.  I explained that it was a portrait of my great x4 grandfather John Hesketh and while there was a possibility that he had two copies painted, this would not be high on the side of probability.  The policeman told me he would talk to Bonhams.

Meantime I sent Bonhams a copy of my picture showing the portrait in the original frame which it had before the burglary.

At this stage I was starting to get a bit despondent.  But just then, good news.  Bonhams came back and confirmed that they had arranged for the miniature to be cleaned and reframed.  My photograph matched an earlier picture which they had taken.  Bonhams confirmed that the two were the same and the miniature was definitely the item stolen from my late aunt 10 years earlier.

The following day the policeman phoned me to confirm that he now felt that this was the stolen item.  Hooray!  However he then went onto tell me that I would need to buy it from the seller as the policeman assumed that the seller had 'bought it in good faith' and so would otherwise be out of pocket.  I was very surprised to hear that he expected me to pay for it.

I contacted two friends who were lawyers.  Both confirmed that the property was mine and I did not have to pay for it.  Under British law, it does not matter how much time had elapsed since the theft, or how many hands the item might have passed through, the original owner still owns the item.  My legal friends also told me that most of the time, when owners are recovering stolen property, they are not able to prove that the disputed item was definitely the stolen item and so they usually end up paying a reward to avoid an impasse.

I went back to the policeman and, as tactfully as I could, I explained to him how the law worked.  I also confirmed that I would be happy to pay a full reward but only if the seller could give us conclusive information about whom he had bought the item from.

I also suggested to the policeman that they should get a search warrant and do a dawn raid on the seller's house and see if they could find anything else.  The policemen said this would not be possible as they did not have the resources.  He also said that they don't like doing this sort of thing, as it often upsets the suspect.  So much for that.

I week later the policeman phoned me to say that he had visited the seller and that he was sure that this man was not the burglar.  Unfortunately the seller could not remember where he had bought it and so it would not be possible to investigate further.  The police did not tell me the seller's name but I found out later that he lived only 10 miles away from my late aunt's house.  An interesting coincidence.

Bonhams returned my great x4 grandfather to me and I did not pay a reward.  He certainly now has a very adventurous provenance and the new frame and the clean have very much improved his looks.

Portrait of John Hesketh
Portrait of John Hesketh - before and after recovery

2013 The Recovery of Catherine Caldwell's Memorial Bracelet

In 2013 a gold bracelet came up for sale via the auctioneers Smith of Newent.  Described as: ‘An early 19th century stranded seed pearl bracelet with yellow metal and enamel clasp engraved to verso Catherine Louisa Caldwell Died August 20 1814 Aged 20’.  Catherine was my great x3 grandmother's sister.  The bracelet did look familiar and so may have been stolen from my late aunt but I could not be certain and it may well have been passed down another branch of the family and then subsequently sold.  I just did not know.

I contacted the auctioneers, and without saying too much, I asked if they could tell me about the provenance.  They were not able to give me the name of the seller but they told me that the last owner, who had recently died, had been a great collector of jewellery.  The item was now being sold by the executors.

For this item I felt it was best to just buy it.  I arranged a telephone bid and bid up until I was the last one standing.  The auctioneer's hammer came down and after payment the item was back in my family.  All relatively straight forward and I didn't really mind parting with the cash.

Catherine Caldwell's Bracelet
Catherine Caldwell's Bracelet

2013 The non-recovery of Josiah Wedgwood's Hunting Horn

This was a rather shocking episode and I learned how dishonest some people are in the antiques industry.  Also I learned how difficult it is to recover stolen property.

A powder horn came up for sale in an auction in America.  I did not recognise it instantly as I did not have a photograph of it however I could remember it.  It had been buried in a draw in my Aunt's bureau in her sitting room.  When I had first seen it back in the 1980s I had asked my aunt; what was a cow's horn doing in the bureau draw.  She explained that although it had originally been a discarded cows horn, someone, a long time ago, had made it into a powder horn to contain gunpowder for a musket.  It had a rather childish looking picture scratched onto it but in addition it had the name James Caldwell (another of my great x4 grandfathers).

This again came up in a discussion with my aunt a few months after the burglary when she told me that it was missing.  She also said that it was a very important family piece as it had been given to James Caldwell by the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood.

I had managed to find this auction item, as the lot description recorded that the powder horn had the inscription 'J Caldwell 1776' and 'JSC 1803'.  I recognised straight away that the initials JSC were for James Caldwell's son, James Stamford Caldwell.  In 1776 James Caldwell would have been about 16 years old and was working for the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood.  We can assume that 1776 was the year that Josiah Wedgwood gave the powder horn to James Caldwell.  JSC was James Caldwell's son James Stamford Caldwell who would have been about 16 years old in 1803.  Presumably James Caldwell passed it on to his son in 1803.

One thing that I did not find out until much later, was that the horn had actually originally come from America in the 1700s and it was made by an early American settler who is unknown by name but is referred to by collectors as the 'Folksy Artist' powderhorn maker.  Josiah Wedgwood had a lot of business contacts in America and presumably this powder horn had been given to him.

Unfortunately I did not have a photograph of it before the burglary and so I could not prove 100% that it was the same powder horn.  However, I know it was the same because it was definitely a family relic and I could remember it being in my aunts draw.  The likelihood of there being two powder horns like this was extremely unlikely. 

I contacted the auctioneer in America and explained that I was fairly certain that this was the powder horn stolen from my late aunt in 2000.  I explained that I did not have an earlier photo to prove it 100% but the family names on the item confirmed with a 100% certainty that it was from my family and the chance of it not being the stolen horn was extremely unlikely.  I requested that he contact the vender to explain the situation and I said I would be happy to pay a suitably large reward to ensure that no one was out of pocket.

I assumed that the auctioneer and the vendor would be happy to accept the reward and return the powder horn to me.  However this is not what happened.  The auctioneer replied to say that he felt that the item was not stolen and therefore they would not accept a reward but I could buy it in the auction.

I contacted the UK police who then contacted the auctioneer in America and officially requested him to return the item to me, its rightful owner.  The auctioneer replied to the police to say the same, that he did not think the item was stolen.

I phoned the American police.  They said I would have to go and see them or write to them.  They did not accept emails.

The UK police then contacted the American police.  The American police said the same, that I would have to visit them or write to them.  They did not accept emails.

I contacted Invaluable, the internet company who was hosting the auction on their website.  I confirmed that this auction house was selling stolen property.  Invaluable responded immediately to say that they would pull the plug as they did not want any auctioneers using their system selling stolen property.  Joy at last, but not for long.  The next day Invaluable contacted me to say that the auctioneer had assured them that the item was not stolen and Invaluable were happy to believe him (and not believe me).

On the day of the auction I attempted to bid by telephone but just as the bidding settled and I confirmed the next bid, the auctioneer disconnected the line.  Horrible person!

What I learned from this was the following:

  • Some auctioneers (possibly most auctioneers) will not believe that something is stolen unless you can prove 100% with absolutely irrefutable evidence that the item definitely is stolen.
  • There is probably lots of stolen stuff sold in auctions every week.  The auctioneers all assume that nothing they are selling is stolen.  Were they to spend time doing checks, they would run into lots of problems and it would be hard for them to run a viable business.
  • Auctioneers just don't want to believe that anything they are selling might be stolen.
  • The police have limited resources and recovering stolen goods is way down on their list of priorities.
  • Recovering a stolen item when it turns up in a different country is extremely difficult.

Oh well.  I suppose at least I do now have a photo of it.  Maybe it will turn up again in the future.

Joshia Wedgwood Power Horn
Joshia Wedgwood Power Horn

2018 Recovery of Robert Hesketh

One thing that I had tried was putting some pictures of my stolen goods on ebay with a note to say that they were stolen and, if anyone had them, I would be more than happy to pay a reward for their return.  Ebay contacted me and told me that I was not allowed to do this and if I did they would close my account.  They confirmed that they were an auction platform and were not prepared to help anyone recover stolen property.

I thought about this for a while.  Ebay is a large organisation which is not run by sensible individuals but is instead run by robots following procedures.  If I was going to get ebay to help me, I would have to ensure that I operated within the limits of their procedures.

My next step was to load up some images of my stolen portraits and sell copies of the images.  I described each image and said that if anyone would like to know about the original please do contact me.

In the case of the miniature portrait of my great x3 grandfather Robert Hesketh, the item was probably worth about £500 so I offered a reward of £1000.  I ran the advert a few times but nothing happened and then one day I was contacted by a collector who had the miniature.  He had possessed it for 13 years, having bought it in an auction in 2005.  He was very pleased to find out who the man in the portrait was and claiming the reward now gave him the money to buy two similar examples as a replacement for one.

He gave me the details of the auction where he had bought it in 2005.  So with this information I once more contacted the police.  Again the police were relatively helpful but I was rather horrified to find out that they no longer had the file with all the information about the burglary.  Apparently in the old days their paper files used to steadily build up and eventually they would take up just too much room.  To solve the lack of space problem, the police every now and then would have a clear out and dump everything.  The file containing all the information about my late aunt's burglary has been destroyed.

So the only information that now exists is my list of stolen goods. 

Anyway, the police contacted the auctioneer and the auctioneer put them in touch with the 'reputable dealer' who had sold the item back in 2005.  The police spoke to the 'reputable dealer' who said he could not remember where he had bought it.  So we reached another dead end on that one.

On the good side, my great x3 grandfather Robert Hesketh has now rejoined his father John Hesketh and they are back in the family so to speak.  Robert had sustained a bit of damage during his 18 year adventure but these scars are now all part of his interesting provenance.

Robert Hesketh
Portrait of Robert Hesketh - before and after recovery

In Summary

Hope you have found the above case study of interest.  Some of my experiences have been very depressing but the recovery of a small number of family relics has been very satisfying.

I have certainly learned that if you own anything valuable you should ensure that you have it fully documented and have lots of photographs.  You should also take all precautions to make sure you don't get robbed in the first place.  When you become elderly and you think your brain is about to deteriorate, make sure you get rid of anything that is valuable by giving it to your children or selling it.

Some of the other items that I am still looking for are the following.

Oval Miniature Portrait of Abraham Crompton.

Portrait Miniature Portrait of Henry Helsham

Portrait Miniature of  Ann Caldwell

Large Landscape Painting Believed to be by the Dutch master Jan Van Goyen

Landscape Painting of a Large Group of People with a Castle in the Background.  Painted by Jan Both.