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Police seek owners of recovered swag

05 June 2015

THE police are appealing for churches that have had items stolen over the past five years to check a list of 60 recently recovered objects.

Detectives retrieved stained-glass windows, medieval gravestones, and carved stone heads after the arrest of a man known as Britain's most prolific church thief. They were found on raids on collectors in London and Brecon supplied by the alleged thief.

Many were stolen from churches in the Welsh Marches, but they also included the two rare 15th-century painted panels stolen from Holy Trinity, in Torbryan, in Devon, in 2013.

They were found in the London raid with about 40 other stolen objects ( News, 22 May 2015, 16 August 2013). The collector is being treated as a witness rather than a suspect.

Restoring many of the items to their owners is proving difficult for the Operation Icarus investigation team from the West Mercia force.

Artefacts still unclaimed include a gravestone inscribed "daemon", a framed tapestry depicting Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and a golden dove, a number of gargoyles, and a medieval lion, probably from a tomb.

One item that has been returned is a stone head of a young woman taken from St Thomas's, Redwick, in Monmouthshire. It was identified by a member of the congregation who saw reports of the arrest.

The man arrested is described as an outwardly respectable, well-educated, middle-aged man, aged 50, from south Wales. He has been released on police bail while inquiries continue. The police suspect a series of coordinated thefts from churches from the Scottish Borders, to East Anglia, and the West Country.

Detective Inspector Martin Barnes, of West Mercia police, said that the perpetrator of the thefts may have had helpers, as the churches that were raided were spread across the country and some of the objects were too heavy for one person to carry.

So far just 13 items have been restored to their owners. They include a 15in-high stone plaque taken from Dore Abbey in Herefordshire, marking the spot where the heart of John de Breton, Bishop of Hereford from 1269 to 1275, was buried. Another is an 800-year-old stone figure of a knight, removed from a windowsill at St Michael's, Castle Frome, near Ledbury.

A four-foot cross from a church in Brecon was only identified after a detective trawled images of historic churches. Mr Barnes said: "When we called to say we had it, they didn't know it had gone."

Anni Holden, a spokeswoman for the diocese of Hereford, where a number of churches were targeted, told The Times: "When we first got them back we felt like making a song and dance about it, but then we thought twice. There's always the danger someone will come back and steal them again, so we just put them back where they belong, where they have been for hundreds of years.

"We never thought they had much monetary value, but they are important as part of the fabric of the church and their loss was very upsetting for the congregation."

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