Largest British Art Theft Comes to Light

When exhibits were returned to the V&A after the war, John Nevin was able to sneak some outEarlier this month, Cahal Milmo had an excellent article in the Independent on the story of John Nevin, an employee at the Victoria & Albert Museum between 1944 and 1953 who stole over 2,000 objects, some of which are still missing.  That makes this the largest art theft ever from a British museum in terms of the scale of objects taken.  This is an old theft, but many thefts which take place aren’t done by armed gunmen or in a dramatic fashion, but rather in a mundane way by museum staff. 
  

Documents held at the National Archives in Kew, west London, reveal that Nevin was able to slowly remove his haul from the storage areas of the museum – smuggling out items such as a small table, which he dismantled and secreted bit-by-bit in his trouser leg – after he was granted unique access to showcases in the aftermath of the Second World War.
By the time police caught up with the kleptomaniac museum worker, who was 48 when he began his crime spree, Nevin had amassed a vast array of precious objects, including 20 Japanese silver sword guards, 229 illustrations torn from books, 18 pieces of Albanian embroidery, 132 original drawings and watercolours and a 300-year-old Flemish tapestry.
Nevin profited from the opportunity presented when elements of the V&A’s collection were returned to its building in Kensington after the war, when they had been in storage.
Senior managers at the museum were shocked when the string of thefts was discovered late in 1953, the documents make clear. In his statement to police, Peter Floud, Nevin’s boss and head of the Circulation Department, the part of the museum responsible for external loans, said: “His duties involved moving, handling, sorting and checking museum objects. As a result of the war years, when stocks were being moved into shelters and then back to the museum, a great deal of sorting was necessary.

Museums and institutions have learned many of these lessons, that their own employees can sometimes betray them.  This of course highlights the importance of accurate and complete documentation of museum collections, and is another consequence of the art trade, which does not rigorously check title histories.  There is a bit of comedy about this story though.  With Mrs. Nevin using an 18th Century Italian tortoiseshell handbag and claiming it as her own, and decorating their council house flat with objects from the V&A. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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