Hollywood has given art heists – the plundering of family heirlooms – a glamour they don’t deserve, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher

Ettie Neil-Gallacher delves into the world of art heists and realises that art crime is a whole lot grubbier than it appears on the silver screen.

Stephen Henderson’s evocative sculptures of birds capture the art and marshland in his DNA, as he explains to Janet Menzies.


Blame Hollywood. While most crime seems seedy at best, there’s a certain panache attached to art heists. The sophistication of the art world translates well into glamorous crime – at least on screen. From How to Steal a Million and The Maltese Falcon to The Thomas Crown Affair, producers and audiences alike lap up the high stakes excitement of the theft of priceless art and antiques.

The silver-screen treatment – combined with breathless reportage in the media about real-life art crime – leaves us in wonderment when we hear about heists. We marvel at what we perceive to be the sheer audacity of thieves who execute meticulous raids to steal famous works of art, sometimes in plain sight; we speculate about what sort of Goldfinger-like crime lord has gleefully orchestrated the deed in order to bolster his collection of Rembrandts, Renoirs and Rubens in his underground lair.

But all this is nonsense. We do a tremendous disservice to galleries, collectors and the owners of stately houses whose family heirlooms are looted if we fail to recognise that, in real life, art crime is a whole lot grubbier. For they’re not being stolen by a crime lord with a taste for fine art. Richard Ellis, former head of the Art & Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard and now a private art crime investigator, describes such a notion as “utter bunkum”. Because art theft is about the money, not culture – and money that is used for the most nefarious of ends.

“If criminals steal a work of art worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, they’re not expecting to get that. But whatever they get is pure profit. They know they can’t sell it on the open market and crime lords are mercenary – there’s no love of art; it becomes a form of currency for criminal enterprise – for paying debts, for use as collateral, for money laundering, for drugs,” he says.

Criminals have to use their spoils because it’s difficult to shift them – not least because the immediate publicity surrounding a heist makes them ‘hot’. Not infrequently, stolen works are mysteriously returned, often fairly swiftly, because the thieves were unable to use them profitably.

Back in 2003, for example, works by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso, together now worth around £4m, were stolen from the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. But an anonymous tip-off allowed the police to recover the works two days later, rolled up in what was by then a rather soggy tube stashed in a disused lavatory on the other side of the park. There was a note attached: “The intention was not to steal but to highlight the woeful security.” The thieves have never been caught but Ellis, who is in the process of writing a book about his work, suspects it was a case of there being an interested party who then backed out after the intense media attention.

But it’s not just the nature and purposes of the thieves we’re deceiving ourselves about. One of the most damaging misapprehensions we’re labouring under is that art theft is somehow a victimless crime. Try telling that to someone whose house has just been pilfered. Just as thefts from public galleries are assaults on our national cultural landscape, the same is true of thefts from private art collections in stately houses. For not only are these people being robbed but so is society as a whole: these heirlooms are not just family heritage, they are a heritage that the owners have invariably been happy to share with the wider public.

Sir Thomas Ingilby, the owner of Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire, believes this passionately. “Items are displayed because they’re of public interest: to individuals and families, artists, academics in many different fields, craftspeople – silversmiths, for example, who’ll want to see and study important silver artefacts. They need to be displayed because if they’re stored in safes they’re of no interest to anyone. That’s the joy of a collection: it’s accessible to the public. We don’t want to put them in heavily guarded containers because they’ll lose their appeal.”

Ingilby is an expert on heritage crime, having been prompted to become involved in its prevention by the theft of Civil War armoury from Ripley. What appeared to be a married couple joined a guided tour of the castle. The man posed as retired military and pretended to have a bad limp. When the tour reached the Knight’s Chamber, he said he needed to sit down. The tour moved on and the couple set about secreting a surcoat and sword before making their escape. A comment by a local policeman that he’d heard of two similar thefts in the past fortnight gave Ingilby the seeds of an idea, which grew into the Stately Home Hotline, a network of more than 1,500 properties established to “try and work out how owners could avoid becoming the next victim”.

The hotline coordinates and shares information relating to attacks and thefts from any stately home – irrespective of whether it’s in private ownership or belongs to the National Trust or English Heritage. Ingilby explains that “a private home with a valuable collection is often open to the public and therefore far more accessible”. The service is run entirely by Ingilby, and in particular he “keeps tabs on trends”: what is being targeted and the methods being used. He notes a current commonality to heritage crime being a worrying level of “brutal force and access via first-floor windows”. Thieves are smashing their way in, unconcerned about damage or noise, relying on speed and the element of surprise.

Using information and data collated on his Stately Home Hotline, Ingilby has played a critical role in many a recovery, often plugging the gap between police forces, among whom there was historically a lack of communication. He gives the example of a series of thefts some time ago, where the perpetrator broke into more than a dozen stately homes, from North Yorkshire to Cornwall, “blatantly relying on the fact that the different forces wouldn’t be speaking to each other”.

He’s delighted to help the police who, he says, “are working under immense pressure. Sometimes the police contact me to trace the original owner of a high-value heritage item that is believed to have been stolen. I circulate the information nationwide via the Hotline and it’s generally not long before someone comes back to me with the answer. I can put the intelligence together but it’s not up to me to apprehend or investigate people.”

Ingilby believes that there are signs that the police work is improving, pointing to the establishment of Operation Opal in the West Midlands, and the appointment of arts and antiques officers in various forces. Their work is supported by international databases such as Art Loss Register and the one held by Interpol. But Ellis believes passionately in the importance of police establishing contacts among dealers and criminals: “It’s absolutely vital to establish a dialogue so that dealers will tell you if they’re being offered stuff; likewise criminals will.”

So if that’s what the police are doing, what can stately-home owners be doing at the same time to protect themselves? Ellis, whose interest in the theft of art and antiquities was sparked by thieves stealing the family silver from his parents’ home, warns that “security comes at a cost and people should make their heirlooms as secure as they can afford to make them”. Ingilby advocates having as many measures in place as possible. “Thieves are always working on a tight schedule – they want to get in and out quickly. So having seven or eight preventative measures, such as different alarms and sensors, as well as CCTV, means they have more obstacles to contend with. It slows them down.”

The public as a whole has a vested interest in ensuring these criminals are brought to justice if we are keen to be able to view such treasures. Ingilby warns that owners should take stock in the wake of acts of heritage crime. “Displaying these items is in the public interest, but those looking after collections of small, highly portable, high-value items urgently need to reassess their security measures in the light of recent events.”


Arundel Castle, May 2021: shortly after it had reopened to the public, thieves broke into the home of the Duke of Norfolk and stole items worth £1m, including the gold rosary beads Mary, Queen of Scots was holding as she mounted the scaffold. The rosary beads are of particular significance because most of the rest of her belongings were destroyed after her execution. The loot – items of “priceless historic importance” according to a spokesman – has yet to be recovered and insurers are offering a substantial reward.

Drumlanrig Castle, August 2003: the theft of the stunning £30m Leonardo da Vinci Madonna of the Yarnwinder by paying visitors sent shockwaves around the country – and prompted the Duke of Buccleuch, until recently Scotland’s biggest landowner, to move Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading, which had hung beside it, to a less conspicuous spot. The thieves overpowered their young tour guide before wrenching from the wall the painting, which had been in the family for more than 250 years, and escaping. It was recovered four years later, though no one has ever been convicted. In a yarn that is seemingly impossible to unwind, the complicated intrigue involved pub owners-cum-private investigators, a dodgy businessman who claimed to have taken the painting as £700,000 security on a property deal that had fallen through, intermediaries and a Glasgow lawyer. The da Vinci now hangs in the Scottish National Gallery.

Any heist by Rose Dugdale: the deb with a doctorate and a taste for paramilitary violence, Dugdale was behind a series of art heists (and a bombing) in the 1970s. Dugdale was born into privilege: privately educated, she did the Season and graduated from Oxford (where she stormed the Union in men’s clothes to protest against its single-sex status), before doing postgraduate work in the States and completing a PhD in economics back in London. By the early 1970s, she’d renounced her background, sold her house in Chelsea and shacked up with a married guardsman who’d done time for minor offences.

She was also in thrall to the IRA. In 1973, she and her lover robbed her family home in Devon, stealing silverware worth more than £80,000. The proceeds from the sale were believed to be headed for the IRA. While he went down, the judge felt that the chances of Dugdale reoffending were extremely low. How wrong he was. The following year, she was part of a violent raid on Russborough House, in Leinster, Ireland, where Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit were roughed up, and where Dugdale carefully selected 19 paintings, including works by Vermeer, Goya, Gainsborough, Velázquez and Rubens. They demanded a ransom and the release of certain prisoners, but the works were ultimately recovered in the boot of a car near a house Dugdale was renting. While in prison, she had a son, and was given permission to marry his father, a fellow incarcerated IRA member. She’s still alive, living in Ireland, and taking part in the odd protest.

Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, Abbotsford House in Melrose, Sizergh Castle and Levington Hall in Cumbria, Scone Palace in Perthshire, and Floors Castle in the Borders, 1994: these properties were raided by a gang over the course of a few weeks, stealing silverware and jewellery, among other items. Memorably, the thieves used a rubber dinghy to row across the River Tweed, before venturing across parkland in order to break into Floors Castle, the home of the Duke of Roxburghe, and steal treasures by Cartier and Fabergé; none of these were recovered.

Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire, 2012: more than 300 antiques and works of art worth in excess of £80m were stolen from the home of property developer Harry Hyams by a Romani gang, who cut through the perimeter fence. It was the biggest domestic burglary ever, and while around half of the stolen goods were recovered, many had been badly damaged. It was discovered the gang was also behind thefts from Waddesdon Manor, the former home of the Rothschild family, and Warneford Place, Wiltshire, the former home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.