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The suspiciously well-informed thieves stealing church silver

Canon Simon Everett - BNPS

It sounds like a case for Father Brown. What police believe are professional criminals have of late been targeting churches in small towns and villages as far apart as Dorset, Suffolk and Lancashire.

Their modus operandi, in most cases, is remarkably similar. They slip in after dark, expertly disable the security cameras, force the lock on the vestry door, and then drill their way into the safe.

What they want to get their hands on is always the same: not the small change from the collection plate, or the parish office laptops, or even – a loss many churches have suffered in recent years – the lead on their roofs. Instead, it is valuable ancient silver – chalices, plates and communion cups, many of which are hundreds of years old.

Ecclesiastical, insurers of choice to the Church of England, are reporting a spike in thefts of church silver in the first four months of 2023. It is surely no coincidence that silver prices – usually on the up anyway when the economy is doing badly and people seek the security of precious metals for their savings – rose from £536 per kilo in March to £653 by mid-April.

“On the day I discovered the theft of our chalice, paten and a small box that holds the bread, all of them silver and hundreds of years old,” says the Revd Gregor Stewart, team rector at St Mary’s, Goosnargh, in rural Lancashire, “two ladies from the village who had heard about what had happened came up to the church. They were in tears on the front steps, and these are people who don’t even usually come to services.”

Reverend Gregor Steward at St Mary's church in Goosnargh - Asadour Guzelian

The robbers had broken a 200-year-old stained-glass window to get into St Mary’s on Easter Monday. Just three days later, in the Dorset town at Wareham, the same method was used to get into the Grade One-listed mediaeval Priory Church of Lady St Mary – though this time a drill wasn’t enough to get into the safe.

Explosives were required to get at the 25 pieces of sacred silver it held, with a total estimated value of £100,000, including a 450-year-old Elizabethan chalice worth £30,000. The vicar, Canon Simon Everett, describes it as a “desecration” of his church.

So, who exactly is behind these crimes, and what are they doing with the stolen silver? Enter the art detectives. The closely matching details of the Wareham and Goosnargh crime scenes – plus the overlap with two others recently at churches in Burstall and Woolverstone in Suffolk – indicate to Dr Bendor Grosvenor, art historian and presenter of the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, that meticulous planning and calculation has gone into these thefts.

“It takes time to stake out a church, to plan your entry and once inside to disable the CCTV cameras [in the Goosnargh church the hard drive had been taken from a locked cupboard]. It also takes time to drill into the safe, time when you know someone might have spotted you breaking in and the police could be on their way. These thieves must have known that what they were looking for was valuable enough to be worth running such a risk.”

Canon Simon Everett inspecting the damage believed to be caused by a criminal gang - MaxWillcock/BNPS

Grosvenor’s particular expertise is in paintings where details and images of stolen works of art are readily available online and make the task of selling pilfered masterpieces much harder. With antique silver, there are fewer deterrents, but the Wareham chalice had the name of the church engraved on it, sufficient surely to alert all but the dodgiest of dealers.

Logic suggests that these hauls of stolen silver may therefore be ending up in smelters, with half a millennium of history destroyed forever in a matter of minutes. From the thieves’ perspective, though, what emerges from the flames is both untraceable and easily sellable.

“This is the work,” suggests Bishop Andrew Rumsey, national co-lead for church buildings and cathedrals for the Church of England, “of organised criminals and due in part to the relative ease with which stolen plate can be sold for cash without ID as is required under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act for sale of lead”.

But Michael Baggott, the silver dealer who was one of the stars of BBC’s Flog It!, long-running daytime rival to the primetime Antiques Roadshow, isn’t convinced. “Given how much trouble these thieves are taking, it would be pointless turning these objects into bullion,” he insists.

“Instead of the £30,000 price tag placed on the Wareham chalice, they would be lucky to realise £200 by weight when this seven-inch-tall treasure was melted down.”

What other explanations are there? Bendor Grosvenor offers two theories. The first is that the thieves’ plan is – “via a long line of intermediaries” – to return the silver objects and claim “finders’ fees” that some insurers are said to pay. But it still won’t come anywhere near the real value of the pieces.

The only other way to get anywhere near that figure, he believes, would be to lie low for several years, wait it out until all the fuss has died down, and then sell it unnoticed in an overseas auction, less closely regulated than in the UK. Or to a wealthy foreign buyer with a particular thing about church fittings and fixtures.

Dr Grovesnor can’t, however, quite buy his own second scenario. “It is, in my experience, a complete myth that there are the sort of mysterious collectors you see in [the film] The Thomas Crown Affair, with vast basements full of stolen art that are for their eyes only. They just don’t exist.”

Michael Baggott tends to agree, especially in his area of expertise. “The market for antique silver is very small. There are frankly not that many people interested in it.

If I offered one of my customers a 16th-century chalice for £30,000, even if I had full provenance for it, they’d look aghast and tell me they would rather buy a new car for that sort of money.”

The bottom of the window (circled) where the gang broke into the Priory Church of Lady St Mary in Wareham - BNPS

Both experts, therefore, are stumped by the crimes. Even a recent development surrounding a similar theft, at first glance encouraging, has on closer inspection anything but a silver lining. St John’s church in Keswick in the Lake District was targeted by thieves back in February who overnight made off with its collection of silver chalices and plate.

Two months later, on Easter Sunday of all days, an elderly Labrador called Mick was sniffing around the graveyard when he found some of the stolen silverware hidden in the undergrowth. An Easter miracle? Not exactly: it contained only the less valuable items taken. The thieves had clearly known exactly what they were looking for.

“The reality,” laments Michael Baggott, “is that many churches are now so worried about protecting these valuable objects that they are giving them to large repositories.

There is one in Gloucester Cathedral where all this silver can be put on display safely and under supervision, leaving local country churches to open their doors daily to all comers without so much fear and anxiety.”

One of the many puzzling features of these crimes is how the thieves know precisely what antique silver individual churches actually have in their safes. Do they go round the country attending Sunday services, going to communion and hoping to spot a valuable chalice as they sip the wine that Christians believe represents Jesus’s blood spilt for humankind?

That sounds too elaborate to Michael Baggott. “My guess is that they might be looking at 19th-century academic texts where volumes were arranged county by county and listed all the plate to be found in local churches.”

That would make solving these crimes a job for Morse and Lewis, standing outside the Bodleian Library in Oxford. But for Baggott, the real mystery about these heists is just how rare the objects taken really are – especially the Wareham church chalice – and hence how specific these thefts are compared with, say, taking lead off a church’s roof.

“To give some sort of context, if we see four, maybe five Elizabeth communion cups with decent provenance coming up for sale every year, then it is unusual. There are just so very few of them left. So, whoever is taking them clearly knows how rare they are – and how real the risk is of getting caught.”

Source: MSN

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