Men jailed for theft of Qing artifacts from museum

Just in time for Lunar New Year, two men have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the theft of two Qing Dynasty artifacts worth a combined $3.2 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum last April. Lee Wildman and Adrian Stanton admitted to having plotted to break in to the museum, but they claimed they never went through it. On the witness stand, they testified that they met some unnamed “Northern men” in a silver Mercedes at a parking lot. These men commissioned them to steal any Chinese artifacts they could get their hands on, the older the better, but after casing the museum Wildman and Stanton backed out of the deal and instead only agreed to provide the mysterious northerners with stolen vehicles.

Judge Christopher Prince did not find their statements credible. In fact, he put it rather more baldly: “I have been struck over two days of this hearing over the amount of disingenuous lies told by the two defendants. I have not heard so many lies from the witness box for a very long time.”

Considering the evidence against them, it certainly was a brazen defense. There’s CCTV footage of Wildman and Stanton at the museum on March 29th. They make a beeline for the Chinese gallery and examined the display cabinets, testing the locks in preparation for their return. Wildman claimed that this was their sole attempt to burglarize the place, that they were thwarted when the museum staff made them check their backpacks and that when they returned empty-handed to the silver Mercedes, the Northerners were angry that had failed to steal anything. In broad daylight. With their faces clearly visible to the cameras. And security guards and museum visitors milling around. Because apparently these Mercedes guys were super keen on the worst burglary plan in the world.

Between March 29th and the April 5th break-in, Wildman and Stanton made several trips from their hometown of Walsall to Durham using stolen vehicles with fake license plates. Police identified them with number plate recognition cameras. The two defendants explained this evidence of their continuing involvement in the plan by saying they were providing the silver Mercedes guys with stolen cars to use during the burglary. The fact that several accomplices would testify that the stolen cars and cloned plates were used by Wildman and Stanton themselves before, during and after the crime didn’t deter them.

On the night of April 5th, the two drove to the museum in an Audi A3 with fake license plates. The thieves spent about 40 minutes breaking a hole in an outside wall and no more than one minute inside the museum. Using flashlights, they each went to two separate cabinets and stole the 18th century carved jade bowl and 17th century Dehua porcelain fairy boat. The alarm went off but they were so quick about it that they were gone before the police got to the museum. It’s almost liked they knew exactly what they wanted to steal, perhaps from an earlier visit?

After the smash and grab, they left in the same Audi. They hid the stolen pieces in a scrubland next to Harle Street in the town of Browney two miles from Durham. They changed cars in Browney and drove back to Walsall. The next day Stanton returned to Harle Street to pick up the Audi, changing the plates one more time.

It seemed like all that careful planning might have paid off, but when Wildman went back to the brownfield to recover the artifacts, he couldn’t find them. He was witnessed looking around the field in an agitated state until sunset. Acting on a tip, police arrived and arrested Wildman. He was released without charge shortly thereafter due to a prosecutorial oversight. Eight days later, authorities found the stolen artifacts in the field, hidden under a bush.

Wildman and Stanton hid out in various hotels in the Midlands until May 1st, when they were recognized thanks to a story on BBC’s Crimewatch show. The police arrested them at Baron’s Court Hotel in Walsall. In the room police found £10,000 in cash and a computer with information on the fake plates. Wildman said his £5,000 was given to him by his brother and he had no idea where Stanton got his identical sum of cash. A car parked outside was found containing a ski mask, a crowbar and fake license plates. Wildman said he didn’t know anything about that car.

Their accomplices — the guy who drove Stanton back to Harle Street to pick up the Audi, Stanton and Wildman’s girlfriends who booked their hotels while they were on the lam and another woman who allowed them to use her credit card to book the rooms — were arrested and confessed to their roles in the scheme. The driver got 20 months in jail. The girlfriends were sentenced 6 months in jail, 12 months suspended, and 200 hours of community service. Their friend with the credit card was sentenced to 4 months in prison, also suspended for a year.

Lee Wildman was sentenced to nine years in jail. Adrian Stanton got eight years. They refused to name the men who commissioned the crime because they said their families had been threatened, so the silver Mercedes cabal remains at large.

Both artifacts have been returned to the museum and will go back on display after an extensive review to beef up security practices.

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Comment by Anonymous
2013-02-11 00:15:53

Interesting. Do you think the silver Mercedes guys ever existed? A lot of art thefts are done on spec, by amateurs who are then stuck with the problem of offloading the loot. These two sound so very amateurish I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had no idea what they were going to do with the objects. (There’s always eBay I guess).

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Comment by livius drusus
2013-02-12 02:24:11

These guys were professional thieves — they have a long police record documenting their illustrious careers — but art was not their usual bailiwick. I think they were commissioned by someone or they would have stuck with cars and license plates. The story of the shadowy men in the Mercedes could be complete fiction, or there could be some kernel of truth in it.

Comment by D. B. Cooper
2013-02-11 01:42:51

The black eye in the mugshot and the not being able to find the stolen artifacts really add to this. Always take caution when cursing, muttering to yourself and trespassing in a random field. Not suspicious at all! I think I came up with more plausible stories when I was skipping curfew as a teenager.

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Comment by livius drusus
2013-02-12 02:26:49

😆 Then there’s the whole parachuting out of a plane with a bag full of money never to be seen again thing. It’s a rare burglar who can compare his skills favorably to yours.

2013-02-11 03:07:24

Continue to love the history blog and the quality of thoughtful writing here. No sensationalism in this art theft post. No mention of Hollywood movies,Thomas Crown styled thieves or stolen for some rich guy’s private collection overtones as is too often the case with art theft articles. Thank You and Brava!

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Comment by livius drusus
2013-02-12 02:30:42

Thank you kindly, Lynda. It’s nice to be able to follow a story through to the stupid, bumbling conclusion instead of having to resort to melodramatic speculation.

Comment by Qingdai
2013-02-12 00:59:07

Some how I feel a sense of personal vindication about this capture.
Don’t mess with the Qing.

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Comment by livius drusus
2013-02-12 02:13:28

Damn skippy.

2013-02-12 03:44:42

Livius, This dynamic duo seem to have the same stylized finesse of the Johnson Brothers. No polished Hollywood Brosnan, no Playboy sidekicks ala Rene Russo. Just the plain ole folk who thieve and more often than not, thieve stupidly.

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Comment by None
2013-06-17 12:40:19

Lee wild man used to work in the cctv industry at a company installing cctv many years ago I’m shocked to learn of him involved in a crime in this way but people beware if you see him around

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