Two priceless 15th century oak panels, stolen from the rood screen of a Devon church in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust in August 2013, have been recovered by the police.
The decorative oak panels, bearing paintings of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch, are considered of national importance, and were stolen from Holy Trinity Church at Torbryan in Devon between 2 and 9 August 2013. The panels remained missing until they were recovered by the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit after being spotted by a private collector in an online sale. This led to a raid by specialist detectives in south London in January.
The rood screen and its panels are one of only a handful of such artworks in England which survived the Reformation. The theft prompted a national media campaign to try to trace the whereabouts of the missing panels, receiving the backing of high profile figures such as Loyd Grossman, Dan Cruickshank and the late Candida Lycett Green. The collector who alerted the police recognised the panels from media coverage of the theft.
When it first came to light in 2013, the theft was a bitter blow for The Churches Conservation Trust, the national charity that cares for 347 unique churches around England including Torbryan church. Despite elation at the return of the panels, the Trust now faces a bill of £7,000 to restore the damage – the result of the thieves hacking the panels out of the screen during the theft – and has today launched a campaign to raise the money.
Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of The Churches Conservation Trust, said: “The Churches Conservation Trust cares for 347 churches around the country, and the Torbryan rood screen is one of the highlights of this internationally-significant collection. The theft of these unique artworks from Holy Trinity was a real blow, so we’re delighted that they are now back in our hands. Unfortunately the damage caused as the thieves hacked them out of the church will cost a lot to put right, so today we have launched a campaign to raise the £7,000 needed to conserve them and repair the damage. The CCT is committed to displaying unique artefacts like these panels in their original setting and open to the public for everyone to see and enjoy. We now need to raise the funds to return these panels to their beautiful medieval church, in a tranquil wooded Devon valley that has remained unchanged for centuries”.
Eminent historian and TV presenter Dan Cruickshank, who backed the original campaign to find the stolen panels, also expressed his delight at the news, commenting: “I’m delighted that these 15th century artworks – once feared lost forever – have been recovered by the police. The panels are irreplaceable examples of an important period in our art and history, and pieces like this help us to learn about who we are as a society. They should belong to everyone. It is a shame that the panels have been left damaged by those who hacked them out of the priceless rood screen but it is good news that The Churches Conservation Trust has already launched a campaign to restore them, and return them to their rightful place in sleepy Torbryan church.”
West Mercia Police are now leading the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, which has also recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles. The police are appealing for help in identifying the artefacts, which include the misericords from St Cuthbert’s Church at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, also in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.
In response to the original theft, The Churches Conservation Trust conducted a thorough audit of security at Holy Trinity, Torbryan and a new alarm system is now in place at the church to protect its contents in future. A new scheme of interpretation is also being developed to explain the artworks and the history of this unique Grade I listed church to visitors.