An exquisite collection of antique gold snuff boxes has returned home more than 40 years after being stolen from a Leeds mansion by a mystery thief.
The seven beautifully ornate, late 18th Century containers arrived back at Temple Newsam House this week, the latest twist in a decades-long whodunnit which staff at the historic house dubbed The Fulford Thefts.
The boxes had joined the house’s collection at the outbreak of the Second World War, when they were part of a generous donation by noted local art collector, entrepreneur and laxative magnate Frank Fulford.
Dating from as early as 1770, the boxes are a mix of French, Swiss and German craftmanship, each featuring intricate gold metalwork and delicate, decorative enamel designs.
Originally displayed in Temple Newsam’s stunning Chinese Drawing Room, the precious objects were pilfered in 1981, vanishing without a trace and with a culprit never identified.
They were thought to have been lost forever until earlier this year, when a determined team of experts from the Art Loss Register, who track down stolen art and antiquities and work to return them to their rightful owners, discovered them for sale at auction.
After completing a formal accession process, representatives from the Art Loss Register and the objects’ insurers visited Temple Newsam yesterday (Nov 9) to hand over the boxes, which will once again become a cherished part of the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection.
Adam Toole, keeper at Temple Newsam House, said: “We’re absolutely thrilled to see the boxes return home to Temple Newsam and are immeasurably grateful to the Art Loss Register for all their work and diligence in getting them back to us, which has kindly been offered on a pro-bono basis.
“The disappearance of these beautiful boxes was a great loss to Temple Newsam and to the city, so we’re delighted that these treasures are in our collection once more.
“It’s extremely rare to find objects which have such a captivating combination of classic artistry and modern-day intrigue and we can’t wait to share this remarkable story with our visitors.”
Centuries ago, the boxes’ original owners would have used them to hold snuff, a type of powered tobacco which was snorted.
Snuffing became a hugely popular trend in France and Britain in the late 18th Century, with ornate and expensive snuff boxes made using exclusive materials including gold, silver and diamonds produced as status symbols for the super wealthy.
The elaborate accessories became part of a very specific ritual of snuff taking in France, which consisted of 14 separate stages.
James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register said: “It is fantastic to see these seven gold boxes returned to Temple Newsam, more than 40 years since they were stolen.
“We are delighted that it was possible for the Art Loss Register to identify them in our work and thus secure their recovery, which has been facilitated through the generosity of both the insurers and the unfortunate individual who found himself innocently in possession of the boxes.
“It is always satisfying to see how effectively the due diligence carried out by art market participants through the Art Loss Register can result in returns like this, which are so significant to the original theft victims.”
Rod Luck, claims technical director with insurers Municipal Mutual Insurance Ltd said: ‘It is good news when stolen property is recovered, particularly when the property is of historical interest. MMI’s approach is whenever possible to facilitate the return of the property to the original owner. MMI is pleased this is the situation in respect of the recovered snuff boxes.”
Alistair McCloud, claims relationship manager with Zurich Municipal Insurance added: “It is pleasing that having worked in partnership with MMI regarding this loss, it has been decided to return the snuff boxes to the original owners. We are delighted that such important artefacts are now back where they belong. Great news for everyone concerned and that these historical items can once again be enjoyed by visitors to the museum for many years to come.”
The recovered boxes will now be carefully conserved by experts at Temple Newsam before they go on display again next year.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “This is a captivating story which sheds more light on the remarkable history of Temple Newsam and why it’s such an important part of our city’s history and heritage.
“It’s amazing to see these beautiful objects return to their rightful home in Leeds where they will become the newest addition to the world class Leeds Museums and Galleries collection.”