EXCLUSIVE: A pufferfish skull, a police whistle and a revolver – here are the weirdest things stolen from London museums

Why would anyone steal a replica rhino horn?

Dozens of items from the obscure to the mundane have been stolen from London museums in the last decade, a London Loves Business investigation has discovered.

We contacted five of London’s biggest museums, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Science Museum and the British Museum to find out what weird and wonderful exhibits have been taken.

Thieves used a variety of different methods to steal items including stealing a museum staff member’s bag and breaking into the museum and smashing a glass case.

Among the items that have been stolen over the years were: a replica hand grenade, a Webley revolver (which has been returned to the museum) and three lottery balls.

Other thefts were reported simultaneously, where it appears a number of items were stolen at once. This includes 32 pieces of sculpture and ceramics stolen in 2004 from the Victoria and Albert museum.

Similarly 30 microscopes and items of jewellery were stolen from the Science Museum in 2005.

Many stolen items were eventually returned to the museums, according to Freedom of Information requests, however some are still missing.

We spoke to a police officer at the Metropolitan Police’s Arts and Antiquities unit who said big thefts from London museums were very rare.

She said her department would normally be called in to investigate when there’s a suspected theft.

If it was a unique item then they would collect all the details of that item subject to Object ID, an internationally known standard for recording the details of artworks and antiques.

This includes what the item is, what materials it is made from, any inscriptions, markings or distinguishing features, the subject (if it is a painting or sculpture, for example) and who made it.

“We would hope the museum would have images and, moving forward, once we have the images and description, we would place it on our database here,” she said.

She added that the information would also be forwarded to Interpol as stolen pieces can end up abroad.

Police and the museum would then usually issue a press release, which can be surprisingly effective in helping track an object down, the officer said. However, thefts from places such as museums can often be difficult to investigate as items can be missing for a while unnoticed before eventually being reported.

She said police tend to investigate differently each time, depending on the object.

“There’s isn’t really a fine science,” she said.

However, unlike other types of theft, missing items from museums can be returned many years later.

“You treat it as any other crime but with the add on that with cultural property if it turns up five, 10, 15 years down the line there are still going to be an awful lot of people that care about it, which isn’t necessarily the same with a Samsung TV.”

A spokesperson for the Science Museum said: “We take the safety and security of our wonderful collections very seriously. 

“Our security regulations are under continual review and we work closely with the Metropolitan Police and other partners to respond to and pre-empt any risk of theft.”

Science Museum

  • 30 17th and 18th century and microscopes, accessories, brooches and pendants
  • RAF Airman’s Cap & Badge from WWII
  • Print taken from Lithographic stone in wooden frame from 1828-1830
  • Folding cube featuring logos and photographs of the four experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider - ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb. Originally from the CERN gift shop
  • Fridge magnet with a diagram of a cross-section of the Large Hadron Collider’s dipole magnets, and banner ‘LHC dipoles - the coolest magnets in the world’
  • Grotesque head, terracotta, probably Greek, 3rd to 1st centuries BC
  • Female head, terracotta, Greek, 200BC-01BC
  • John Dee’s crystal, used for clairvoyance and for curing disease
  • Statement about John Dee’s crystal by Nicholas Culpeper, written on back of deed
  • Large plaster bust of Diomedes and small reproduction on alabaster rock and wooden chucking piece
  • Police whistle, withdrawn from use by the Cornish Constabulary in 1970.
  • Model of Ford Zephyr saloon car, 1951.

Natural History Museum

  • 2 replica rhino horns
  • Pufferfish skull
  • Paratype colony of Buellia evanescens and several specimens of Usnea sulphurous from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition
  • 10 unprocessed and unregistered micropalaeontological samples from the Cretaceous of the Ockley Brickworks Pit, Surrey

Imperial War Museum

  • Two sets of CAM gear from Nov/ Dec 1945 era Rolls Royce 68A Aero Engine
  • 3 copy prints of British Army photographs of German tanks (originals still held by IWM)
  • Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham, VC andBar, Medal Group (stolen from Waiouru Army Museum, New Zealand, while on long term loan)
  • Small parts of Mig 21 aircraft - two of four static dischargers on the airframe stolen; a third partially stolen and the fourth jammed while being unscrewed
  • One webbing strap from a Willys MB Jeep
  • Webley Service issue .455 Mk VI revolver and a Prideaux Quickloader
  • A prop display item, a replica hand grenade
  • A prop display item, a sheepskin flying jacket
  • 6.5 oz baby incendiary, certified free from explosives

British Museum

  • A clock made by Benjamin Vulliamy

Victoria and Albert Museum

  • Three lottery balls
  • 32 items of sculpture and ceramics, some from the 1700s
  • Bottle of Paul Smith perfume
  • Hanging barometer with enamel plates
  • Stone capital carved with leaves, early 14th century
  • Oil painting ‘Woman at Fountain’ by William Etty
  • Oil painting ‘The Wildflower Gatherers’, by John Linnell
  • Wii remote control

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