Durham University Oriental Museum raid sparked review aimed at making it "impregnable"

THE theft of £2m worth of treasures prompted Durham University's Oriental Museum to undertake a massive review of security in a bid to make the premises "impregnable".

The museum had a "fairly sophisticated" alarm system prior to the late night break-in, strategically timed for the start of the Easter weekend.

Although the alarm sounded and police were alerted after the “hole in the wall” raid at 10.40pm on April 5, the intruders managed to flee the scene with their haul in a high-powered Audi A3.

Staff at the Elvet Hill museum were on alert at the time, following the theft of a decorative rhino horn libation cup from a display in December 2011.

When the men responsible for the subsequent raid visited the museum on a “recce” a week before the break-in, suspicious staff reported their activities.

CCTV footage helped give police an early glimpse of the men they were ultimately to detain.

Judge Christopher Prince asked the museum for a report on the effect the raid had had on the facility.

Addressing the court during today’s (Friday February 8) sentencing hearing, he spoke of the museum as an amenity for locals and visitors alike which helped spread the word of the city and university to potential students and benefactors in the Far East.

“The Oriental Museum is entrusted with the security of these valuable artefacts and takes its responsibility very seriously indeed," he said.

“There was a fairly sophisticated alarm system in place at the time.

“Nevertheless, it was evaded on the night in question and, therefore, in response, the university has now expended hundreds of thousands of pounds increasing that security.

“It was an effort to render the premises impregnable so they may continue to ensure benefactors’ items placed into their stewardship will remain intact and safe.

“We might hope the word will go out among those who would seek to steal items like this from the museum that this extra expenditure has been made.

“The word may also go out to benefactors that their loans will continue to be appreciated by the people of Durham.

“Perhaps, due to their sense of history, the people of Durham responded so rapidly and, through the support of the public, the laudable and considerable investigative techniques of Durham Constabulary, thankfully the items have been recovered.”

Dr Craig Barclay, the museum curator, said: “We’re delighted that these important Qing dynasty artefacts were recovered quickly through the sterling efforts of Durham Police.

“Both objects were undamaged, but require some conservation cleaning work as a result of the theft.

“We look forward to having them back on display once the work is completed.”

He said the stolen items, with a combined value of more than £2m, included a large green jade bowl bearing a Chinese poem, plus its wooden stand, dating from 1769.

The other stolen exhibit was a 30cm Dehua porcelain sculpture, with a cream white glaze, of seven fairies in a boat.

Detective Superintendent Adrian Green, who led the investigation team, said the sentences imposed sent out "a clear message to any travelling criminals that if they come to Durham intending to commit such crime, they will be arrested and should expect to receive significant punishment."

“It was a complex investigation involving a team of 120 officers and we had to trail people we had never met around the country,” he said.

Judge Prince also commended witness Sharon Wilkinson.

Her report of Wildman’s suspicious activity on wasteland at Browney, where the valuable haul was hidden, helped police arrest him later that day and recover the artefacts.

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