Published: July 19, 2011
In early 1941, the German Luftwaffe carried out a sustained, strategic bombing campaign across the city of London. For 76 consecutive nights, bombs rained down on the country’s capital severely damaging more than one million buildings, among them the mediaeval church of St Olave Hart Street.
St Olave’s, the resting place of famous diarist Samuel Pepys, took a direct hit on the night of April 17, 1941. The explosion reduced 90 percent of the building’s original stonework to rubble and buried many of the church’s treasured artworks.
Yet despite the success of the salvage operations that followed, the church could find no trace of one of their largest monuments †an early Seventeenth Century funerary bust of eminent botanist and physician Dr Peter Turner. The missing work had formed part of a larger memorial erected by Turner’s wife around 1614. Turner’s remains are buried underneath the church along with those of his father, William Turner (himself eminent as one-time dean of Wells and author of the first herbal in English).
Between 1951 and 1954, an impressive rebuild of St Olave’s was completed and various recovered artworks put back on display. While the bust remained missing, the corner where the work had once sat was left empty as officials remained hopeful that the monument might one day resurface.
It was not until April 2010 that the bust of Dr Turner was finally located when consigned for sale at regional UK auction house Dreweatts. Alerted to the impending sale by a curator at the Museum of London, church officials immediately contacted the Art Loss Register (ALR), which agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.
The ALR contacted Dreweatts, an ALR subscriber, who agreed to cooperate fully. The bust was withdrawn from sale and securely held by the auction house until title could be clearly assessed. The piece had been consigned for sale by Belgian art dealer Paul de Grande, who had bought the work more than ten years earlier from an ecclesiastical dealer in the Netherlands.
Surprisingly, the bust had traveled to the Netherlands with documentation detailing its history in St Olave’s up until the 1941 bombing. Church officials were amazed to find that the provenance provided stated, “Presumably the bust of Dr Turner was salvaged from the ruins [of the church], but its history since the Blitz is undocumented.” While the loss was undocumented, it seemed the bust had been stolen rather than salvaged in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
The case took a further twist as the parties delved deeper into the piece’s more recent provenance. The party who sold the work to the Dutch dealer was identified as “Gray Dench,” real name Gray Elcombe, a Kent-based antiques dealer currently serving eight years in prison for smuggling drugs into the United Kingdom inside other objects.
Following lengthy negotiations between the ALR and the parties involved, a settlement was finally reached in June of this year. The Dutch dealer agreed to reimburse de Grande his purchase price, who in turn agreed to release his claim to the work.
St Olave’s was finally reunited with the bust on June 21, just over 70 years after it was lost from the building’s rubble. A formal return ceremony is planned for next year, and the church is currently consulting the Diocese of London on how the bust may be most fittingly reinstalled.
The Art Loss Register is at 63-66 Hatton Garden, first floor. For information, www.artloss.com or +44 20 7841 5780.
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