Anglo-Saxon brooch returned to local museum after more than a quarter century

Posted on: September 23, 2021 by

All too often in the field of art law we read about looting, destruction and loss, heritage subjected to risks and threats the world over. It sometimes feels like happy endings are rarer than hens’ teeth. Even less common, perhaps, are art world stories which have a very personal resonance. However, a story which came to my attention recently ticked both those boxes, so I’m keen to share it here!

I was born and brought up in Oakham, the busy county town of Rutland, England’s smallest county. Small, but blessed with beautiful countryside, chocolate-box villages, wonderful people (yes, I am of course unashamedly biased!) and a fascinating history (check out the unique Norman Castle with its famous horseshoes), its motto, ‘multum in parvo’ (much in little) could not be more apt.

Oakham is home to the Rutland County Museum which houses a collection of objects relating to local rural and agricultural life, social history and archaeology. Amongst these are more than 70 Anglo-Saxon brooches of varying shapes and sizes, collected from three main sites across the county.

On an ill-fated night in 1995, thieves broke into the museum in a targeted raid and stole nine Anglo-Saxon brooches and a gold finger ring. Although the ring was recovered soon after the theft, the brooches remained missing. Over a quarter of a century later, when hopes of recovering any of the brooches had long faded, an anonymous parcel sent by post to the Metropolitan Police turned out to contain one of the stolen artefacts – a beautiful bronze-gilt square-headed brooch, originally discovered in the local village of Market Overton.

Identification of the brooch was possible because the theft had been registered with the Art Loss Register (ALR). This meant that on receipt of the anonymous package, the Met Art and Antiques Unit (the only enforcement team in the UK specialising in the investigation of cultural heritage crime) was able to liaise with the ALR to confirm the identity of the object and its owner. The piece was then looked after by the Met until its return to the museum last month, following the lifting of COVID restrictions.

I consulted Tim Clough, former Keeper of the museum who was at the helm at the time of the theft, to ask what he recalled of the event and to glean his thoughts on the recovery. As indicated by the Crime file report submitted at the time, the raid had been well-planned: an indirect entry point was meticulously devised to avoid contact alarms, the entry and exit route through the building carefully scoped out, and the operation conducted with alarming efficiency – the police were on site within three minutes of the alarm being activated, but the perpetrators had already absconded, having got what they had come for.

In truth, despite the theft receiving some publicity at the time, hopes of seeing the artefacts again were not high and faded further as the years rolled on. The news, over 25 years later, that one of the brooches had come into the hands of the police and would be returned to the museum was therefore something of a surprise – but a very welcome one!  It is good news too, that on first inspection, the condition of the brooch does not appear to have deteriorated markedly.

More than a quarter of a century after the incident, much has changed at the museum, including its layout, security systems and displays. Risk assessment has long been an important part of the job for those looking after our museums (even, perhaps, before it was termed as such) but the parameters have shifted over time. Even in the 1970s, Tim recalls how greater security measures were required for items which had been on open display (CCTV, barriers and alarms, for instance) but factors such as changes in the financial value of collection items and the apparent increasing sophistication of the perpetrators of heritage crimes have necessitated a re-evaluation for many museums. Improved communications between institutions about these issues and training for museum staff are highlighted as significant and positive developments in museum practice over recent decades.

Tim left me with the comforting reminder that instances of attempted or successful break-ins or thefts from institutions are (thankfully) relatively uncommon, and that with co-operation between museum staff, the police, insurers and the Art Loss Register, successful recoveries can occur – as the current story exemplifies.

As to the ultimate fate of the other artefacts stolen from the Rutland County Museum all those years ago, only time will tell. The return of the brooch more than 25 years after its disappearance gives cause for optimism, however. Perhaps another anonymous package to the Met is too much to hope for, but experience suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily rule it out!

With my very grateful thanks to Tim Clough, Keeper / Curator, Rutland County Museum, 1974–2002, and to Lorraine Cornwell, Collections Manager, Rutland County Museum for their time and insights.

Image: © Rutland County Museum