Police find Wenlok Jug stolen from museum in May

Screen capture of CCTV footage of thief about to break the display glass with a drain gratingA medieval bronze jug of great rarity and historical significance stolen from a museum in Luton, Bedfordshire, England this May has been found by the Bedfordshire police. The Wenlok Jug was stolen in a smash-and-grab burglary the night of May 12th from the Stockwood Discovery Centre. At 11:22 PM, the thief, his face wrapped with a scarf to stymie the CCTV cameras, climbed the museum’s fence, broke down the door and used a drain cover to smash through the half-inch thick laminated glass and polycarbonate compound of the display case. He took the jug and ran.

The museum’s insurance company offered a reward of £25,000 for the jug’s safe return because there was immense concern that the burglar planned to sell the 13-pound bronze artifact simply for its scrap value, a mere £20 ($32). The value to the museum was inestimable, both because of its market price and because of its national and regional importance. It is one of a very few datable medieval bronze jugs to bear the maker’s mark of an English bronze founder, possibly a bell founder, although the exact mark has not been found among extant medieval bells yet.

The Wenlok JugThe tankard is a foot tall and is decorated with coats of arms, including Plantagenet royal arms used between 1340 and 1405 and East Anglian arms, probably relating to the foundry. There are other royal and noble symbols — crowns, badges — decorating the jug, plus a dedication to “MY LORD WENLOK” inscribed all in capitals around the bottom half. There are two possible candidates for the Lord Wenlok in question. One is William Wenlock, Archdeacon of Rochester and canon of King’s Chapel, Westminster and of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who died in 1391 and is buried under St. Mary’s Parish Church of Luton. He wasn’t a lord in the sense of having the official title, but he was an important figure in local life and in the church hierarchy, so he could have been referred to as a lord for jug purposes.

The other is his great-nephew John, the first and only official Lord Wenlock, who fought and served under every king from Henry V to Edward IV. He was Chief Butler of England from 1461 to 1469, so the Wenlok Jug could well have been used to serve royalty. He was a Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire throughout the 1430s and 1440s, was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1444 and was elected Speaker of the House in 1455. His family seat was Someries Castle in Sir John Wenlock window in Wenlock Chapel at St. Mary's Church, LutonLuton which, since he changed sides twice during the Wars of the Roses, was forfeited to the crown after he died fighting (not very well, by some accounts, which claim he was killed by his commanding officer the Duke of Somerset for failing to press forward in support of him) for Henry VI at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Both Wenlocks lived in Luton. The family bought the Manor of Luton in 1377 and lived there until John built Someries. Their names are on the town’s medieval guild register, and there’s a Wenlock Street in town. St. Mary’s Church also has a Wenlock Chapel with a stained glass window depicting Lord Wenlock in his knightly finery.

Asante Ewer at the British MuseumThere are only two other medieval bronze jugs like it known to exist. One is in the British Museum, the other in the Victoria and Albert. They differ in size, color and decorative details, but they all share a number of characteristics. They’re the same pot-bellied shape, although the British Museum piece looks quite different because it’s the only one of the three to have retained its lid. The other two had lids originally, but only the hinges are left now. All three inscriptions say different things, but they’re done in similar, and may I say awesome, Lombardic-style lettering. They all bear the same age royal arms (1340-1405).

Robinson Jug at the Victoria and Albert MuseumEven under the surface the three pieces show themselves to be related. A study of the three done by the British Museum found that they are made of the same alloy of copper, tin and lead known as leaded bronze. This was a popular material, but the jugs have the same impurities in the metal which suggests all three were cast at the same foundry. X-rays show that they were manufactured using the same technique — molten bronze poured into a mould with a front part, a back part and a core — which again was popular at the time. Unusual, however, was the use of metal spacers inside the mouldsWenlok Jug X-ray that ensured the metal would flow freely between the outer casing and the core. All three jugs used these spacers.

The Wenlok Jug is the smallest of the three but bears the earliest maker’s mark. It’s also the most recent discovery. Nobody knew it existed until it was found in a cellar at Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, the stately home of Lord Alexander Hesketh which he sold to a Russian retail store magnate in July 2005. Sotheby’s auctioned off some of the contents in May of that year, the Wenlok Jug among them. It was purchased at that auction by a London dealer for £568,000 ($920,000). In October 2005, the dealer sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for £750,000 ($1,200,000).

Wenlok Jug (l), Robinson Jug (m), Asante Ewer (r)Given its extreme rarity, its connection to two similar pieces at the two top museums in the country, the royal arms and the medieval maker’s mark, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council declared it of national importance and outstanding significance for the study of medieval metallurgy. Culture Minister David Lammy promptly put a temporary export ban on the jug. The deal with these export bans is if a museum in-country can come up with the same amount of money the foreign entity spent on the purchase, then the local museum gets to buy it.

The Luton Council’s museum service, anxious to secure a masterpiece with such a close connection to the city for themselves and for the nation, stepped up to the plate. In the world of museums, it doesn’t get more David and Goliath than this. The Luton museum’s total yearly acquisition budget is £2,500 ($4,000). The Met spent $36.5 million on art purchases between June 2010 and June 2011, and that’s just a fraction of its overall acquisitions endowment of $632 million.

By hook and by crook, Luton scrounged up the £750,000 it needed to buy the jug out from under the Met. The bulk came from large grants. They got £137,500 from the National Art Collections Fund and £590,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. They raised another £20,000 in donations from museum supporters, individuals, local organizations and small trusts. Throw in the museum’s annual acquisition budget and that makes exactly £750,000. They secured the Wenlok Jug at the end of February 2006, and in May it went on display at the Wardown Park Museum.

In 2008 it was moved to the newly constructed Stockwood Discovery Centre where it remained on display until the burglary earlier this year. The Bedfordshire police have been investigating the crime ever since it happened, and their doggedness has now paid off. They discovered the purloined jug on the morning of Monday, September 24th at a home in Tadworth, Surrey. Officers arrested two people at the scene. One has been charged with handling stolen property and the other is now out on bail pending further investigations. Museum experts have examined the jug today and confirmed it is the authentic artifact.

Police haven’t closed the investigation — they are still asking the public for any information they might have about the theft — but the Wenlok Jug is back home. The relief at the museum must be palpable. There was no replacing this piece. Even if they had the money, which obviously they do not, there simply isn’t another one like it.


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Comment by D. B. Cooper
2012-09-26 08:27:13

I’m so happy to see this go back home!

I have my doubts that this guy wanted it for scrap though. I think stealing fences, wires and duct work from a construction site is a whole lot easier than scaling a fence, ripping off a door and then bashing in a display case under the eye of a camera for 20 Pounds and a tall boy of cider. As we’ve seen, huge, prolific outdoor sculptures are easier targets than this.

My suspicion is the highly publicized drive for funds and the final acquisition price of this piece made it seem like this jug was worth a lot more than it really is to an average seller. A small, portable thing with a big price is worth a targeted attack. I also suspect that once the thief had the pitcher he (or more likely, they) found that it was way harder to offload a priceless, well documented and unique artifact than a gold chain.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-09-28 00:42:15

I doubt he was looking for scrap metal too. The drain grating he used to break through the security glass was probably worth more in scrap than the jug. I think the police checked the scrap metal foundries first because it was the greatest danger. If the piece were melted down, there would be no going back, whereas even if he had a buyer ready to go, there would still be a chance the jug could be tracked down.

Comment by Lapinbizarre
2012-09-26 09:27:57

Fascinating piece. Thank god they hadn’t polished it up.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-09-28 00:44:11

Even thieves have seen enough Antiques Roadshow by now to know that polishing antiquities ruins their value. ;)

Comment by Hels
2012-09-26 10:32:29

It is rare, valuable, 14th century and one of a very few datable medieval bronze jugs to bear the maker’s mark of an English bronze founder. And the police thought the thief was going to melt it down? Never … that thief knew EXACTLY what he was taking.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-09-28 00:45:52

I agree. Like I said to D.B., I think the police were probably taking immediate first steps to prevent the worst — the complete destruction of the jug — from happening. I doubt they really thought it was the most likely scenario.

Comment by Android
2012-09-28 17:33:27

God thing he wasn’t trying to collect a whole set!

Comment by livius drusus
2012-09-29 05:27:02

I don’t think it would have been so easy to bust into the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert. Maybe he would have been caught earlier if he’d been crazy enough to try.

Comment by berita terbaru
2013-01-27 23:44:02

I’ve never been, but I just looked it up online and their collection of wax anatomical figures looks phenomenal.

Comment by Adrian F. Fray
2016-12-10 16:56:38

I have recently published a book entitled “The Mystery of Lord Wenlock and His Glastonbury Treasure” in which I suggest that the three jugs/ewers were actually made in, or near, Bruges during the 1st week of July 1468. They were gifts from Count Charles the Bold of Burgundy to Sir Anthony Woodville (Asante Ewer), the Duchess of Norfolk (Robinson Jug), and Lord John Wenlock (Wenlock Jug). These three persons had accompanied Princes Margaret (Edward IV’s sister) to her marriage with the Count. The English texts were probably devised by Countess Margaret (appropriate for each) and the out of date coat of arms was obtain from the Count’s aunt, who had married the Duke of Bedford in 1423. The jugs/ewers would therefore be mid 15C Burgundian workmanship and NOT examples of late 14C English bronze casting!

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