Two 15th century painted oak panels ripped out of Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, almost two years ago have been recovered by police. A sharp-eyed and damn decent collector spotted them in an online sale and notified the authorities who traced them in a property in south London. The place was raided by detectives from the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit in January and the panels recovered. A 50-year-old man from Wales has been arrested for the theft.
The panels were part of a rood screen, a tracery partition separating the nave from the chancel, built between 1460 and 1470. Inset in Gothic arches that mimic the design of the church’s stained glass windows are a series of 40 oak panels painted with figures of God, Mary, the Apostles and a panoply of saints. They are of extremely high quality, “cathedral quality,” according to the art historian Dr. Neil Rushton of the Churches Conservation Trust. Painted by a top artist of the period at the same time the church was constructed, the rood screen panels are colorful evidence of how much money, mainly from the wool trade, was in the area in the second half of the 15th century. They are the country’s best surviving examples of this kind of art from the late Middle Ages, almost all of which was destroyed in the Reformation, and therefore of national importance.
The panels that were stolen depict St. Victor of Marseilles and St. Margaret of Antioch, lesser known saints which make them rarer than the panels with more common iconography. Because of their rarity, there was speculation at the time of the theft that it may have been commissioned by an underworld collector who coveted these specific pieces, but the commissioned theft idea always gets deployed after these sort of crimes and it usually turns out to be a lot more Keystone Cops and a lot less Thomas Crown. This case is no different. Commissioned thefts don’t wind up for sale online.
Churches have increasingly been frequent targets of thieves, often for the scrap value of their architectural materials like lead roof tiles or even paving stones and grave markers. Art is a riskier proposition since it’s more likely to be recognizable, but that hasn’t stopped thieves from taking the chance before at the Holy Trinity Church. Four of the original 40 panels were stolen in the 1990s and three more were taken in 2003. Those seven panels are still missing which makes the recovery of the two most recent thefts even more significant.
West Mercia Police are now leading the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, which has also recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles. The police are appealing for help in identifying the artefacts, which include the misericords from St Cuthbert’s Church at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, also in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.
In response to the original theft, The Churches Conservation Trust conducted a thorough audit of security at Holy Trinity, Torbryan and a new alarm system is now in place at the church to protect its contents in future. A new scheme of interpretation is also being developed to explain the artworks and the history of this unique Grade I listed church to visitors. A service at the church on 30th May will give thanks for the return of the panels.
The 45 cm (17.7 inches) by 15 cm (6 inches) panels were stolen between August 2nd and 9th of 2013 when the church was open to the public. They are believed to have been pushed out of their casing from the front, but a panel of an unknown female saint to the immediately left of the stolen pieces was seriously damaged in the process. It was punched through and a large shard from the top of the panel to the saint’s legs broke off. Now that the missing panels have been recovered, it’s clear there was damage done to them as well during the theft. The restoration is expect to cost £7,000 ($10,843) and the Churches Conservation Trust has launched a campaign to raise the funds.
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