Shock return for golden box from Rothschild Collection stolen in heist

Pippa Shirley, director of collections, historic properties and landscapes at Waddesdon, said: “I am absolutely delighted that this box has returned, and very grateful to the Art Loss Register for its part in its successful recovery.

“The 2003 theft was deeply traumatic for everyone at Waddesdon – I remember it vividly – and this feels such a positive outcome and gives us hope that the other boxes may yet come back to us.

“It is also such a happy coincidence that it should reappear in the year in which we are celebrating Alice de Rothschild and her extraordinary contribution to the collections here.”

Lucy O’Meara, an expert on country house thefts and recovery specialist at the ALR, said: “It’s an honour to assist in returning a small part of the house’s cultural history to its rightful place and I am hopeful that the remaining boxes will be reunited with the National Trust collection very soon.”

The French bonbonniere is dated between 1775 and 1781 and was made in Paris, a centre for the production of gold boxes in the 18th century.

They were typically used as personal accessories, kept in a pocket, in a boudoir or salon, and used for sweets, and are often embellished with painted or enamelled scenes.

Boxes still missing

Given the seriousness of the theft and the number of other boxes still missing, the auction house immediately contacted Thames Valley police as soon as they had identified the treasure.

They were stolen from the Buckinghamshire stately home in the early hours of June 10, 2003, by a gang of five men dressed in blue boiler suits.

After tripping the alarm system, the burglars drove off across fields and down a steep embankment in a stolen blue Toyota that was later found burned out in the nearby village of Westcott.

Police described it as a “professional raid by people who knew what they wanted”.

Led by Danny O’Loughlin, the group was later dubbed the ‘Johnson gang’ when it was finally unmasked in 2006 as a family of serial criminals responsible for several stately home burglaries.

Criminal career

The “forensically aware” group’s criminal career earned them £80 million in ill-gotten goods.

As well as the notable Waddeston theft, the gang was responsible for stealing £30m worth of antiques from reclusive property tycoon Harry Hyams in 2006 – the biggest single burglary in British history.

As a consequence of the robbery, Mr Hyams fell 49 places in that year’s Sunday Times Rich List.

The spree was only brought to an end when five police forces – Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire and West Mercia – came together to form Operation Haul. Detectives said the Johnsons were “forensically aware” and adept at covering their tracks.

Members of the criminal gang were finally jailed in 2007 and 2008.

Richard “Chad” Johnson and Daniel O’Loughlin were both jailed for 11 years; Michael Nicholls was given 10 years; Albi Johnson, aged 25, was jailed for nine years; and Ricky Johnson was given eight years.

Passing sentence, Judge Critchlow said the family had “no respect for people or the law.”

Underground bunker

Some items stolen in the Hyams burglary were discovered in April 2006, when detectives found an underground bunker at a field owned by an associate of the Johnsons near Stratford-upon-Avon. But tens of millions of pounds of stolen goods are yet to be recovered.

The returned gold box will go on display in the Rothschild Treasury from April 27. It was acquired originally by Alice de Rothschild, whose brother Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild started building Waddesdon Manor in 1874.

He was a keen collector, and the house, styled like an early 16th-century French chateau, was designed to showcase his collection of English portraits, French 18th-century furniture, Sèvres porcelain and other decorative arts.

In 1957 the Rothschilds gave Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust. However, the family continues to run the property through a charitable trust under the leadership of the current Lord Rothschild.

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