ARCHITECTURAL THEFT
Philip Davies explains how Westminster City Council is tackling the problem.

The theft of architectural features from listed buildings is in danger of seriously undermining the entire purpose of Listed Building control. In central London the problem has reached epidemic proportions. In some areas almost every vacant building has been ransacked for highly prized fixtures. The common losses are chimneypieces but panelling, shutters, balustrading, stained glass and doors are also at risk.
In London the districts most at risk are the great 18th century estates in Mayfair, Marylebone and Blooms- bury. Nor is the problem confined to vacant property. Occupied buildings have also been burgled and valuable items stolen. In one notable incident in New Cavendish Street, Marylebone, a fine Adam chimneypiece was stolen from an occupied office building. It was later found in the yard of a well- known, West London architectural salvage dealer, but no proceedings were brought. It is one of the ironies of conservation that it is falling victim to its own success, as a ready market has been created for salvaged architectural features.
At St. Stephenís Church, Rosslyn Hill, one of Teulonís finest ecclesiastical works, a particularly fine collection of stained glass windows made by Clayton and Bell was removed when the windows were boarded up to protect them. Their loss was not discovered for some time.
The tragedy is that for every chimneypiece successfully stolen, others are smashed up in the process. In central London the culprits are thought to be a handful of highly vigilant, unscrupulous thieves with a well-trained eye for the best pieces and a network of contacts at home and abroad for disposal of the most conspicuous items.
Following pressure from local authorities and other bodies, the Arts and Antiques Squad has been reconstituted by the police. Part of its brief is to deal with the theft of architectural features from listed buildings. All cases are logged on to a central computer record, so that a strategic overview can be maintained. Whenever a case is discovered it should be reported to the local police station and
Example of the kind of items at risk.
also direct to:
The Arts and Antiques Squad
Metropolitan Police
Room 1534
New Scotland Yard
Broadway
London SW!
Tel:
01-230 1212
What can be done? Owners of listed buildings should be advised to keep a photographic record of all internal architectural features at risk, and they should check that they are covered by either household or building contents insurance. At times of greatest risk, when building works are in progress or when a house is for sale, extra vigilance is required, together with daily checks. For high value city- centre buildings the only complete assurance is 24 hour site security.
Once a theft has occurred, it is important to ensure that the building is properly reinstated. It is common for other salvaged chimneypieces to be offered as replacements. Unless a detailed provenance of the particular
item is available, this is not an answer. It compounds the problem and further encourages the lucrative cycle of theft.
Case law is limited, but generally supportive. As a result of action taken by Westminister City Council against the unauthorised removal of chimneypieces from a house in Wimpole Street, Marylebone, a High Court ruling decreed that ignorance of the fact that a building is listed is not a defence against prosecution. The unauthorised removal of items from listed buildings is an absolute criminal offence. In another recent prosecution by the same Council, the leaseholder and contractor of a fine early 18th century house at Dean Street, Soho, listed grade 11*, were prosecuted for the unauthorised removal of panelling, cornices and chimneypieces. They were fined a total of £14,000 and ordered to pay the Councilís costs of £10,115. The total overall cost to the leaseholder, including reinstatement is likely to be in excess of £100,000.
Philip Davies is Principal Historic Buildings Officer with Westminster City Council.
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