Thursday, 26 July 2007

Hot property

We watched enthralled as Bill Oddie fed robbins from the palm of his hand and hidden cameras filmed badgers and blue-tits in the recent Britain Goes Wild TV series. So, on the next trip to the garden centre, we dutifully stocked up with peanuts and wild bird seed and even lashed out on rather smart gothic-style bird bath. We were all set to turn our back yard into a wildlife haven. Now we learn that if it's not screwed down, the stone birdbath is going to get nicked.

If you believe what you read, we are in the middle of a spate of thefts of garden statuary and it's not just the owners of stately homes who are the victims. It seems that because thieves are finding house burglaries more difficult these days, and courts are handing down heavier sentences, robbers are turning their attention to the somewhat easier pickings out of doors. And with police resources stretched, the rate of detection and recovery is relatively low. I know, because my garden shed was done over recently ... twice!

It was good to learn then that, somewhat against the trend, a valuable garden statue which disappeared a couple of years ago from the grounds of Sledmere House in East Yorkshire had been found and returned to the plinth from which it had been stolen. It was traced to a dealer's shop in Chicago, having passed through the hands of an intermediary in Huddersfield, a shipping agent in east London and a boat from the Hook of Harwich, all in the matter of a couple of months.

Fortunately, a picture of the life-size statue -- known as Goddess of the Harvest -- had been published on the front cover of Trace, a magazine which exists to alert dealers, collectors, auction houses and the authorities about stolen art and antiques. The picture was spotted by someone who said he remembered seeing the statue going into a crate at the shippers and it was relatively straightforward to track down its final destination.

This was not the case for one client of the Chester Valuation Company*. Principal Michael Hore says: "We were called in to value a pair of huge stone pier finials stolen from the imposing entrance gates to a big house in the area. They were so heavy that police believe a crane was used to take them away. Our client replaced them, only for them to be stolen again! Now, the 18th century wrought iron gates, fitted with yet another pair of finials, are also fitted with thief-proof locknuts and both the garden and the house are monitored by CCTV cameras."

According to Michael Hore, it used to be lead from the church roof that was a target for thieves. Today, with hours of television devoted to garden makeovers and hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on our plots, however humble, he says it is the valuable antique features such as Coalbrookdale cast iron seat furniture, stone and marble statuary, lead flower planters, York stone paving and even expensive exotic plants that are being lifted overnight.

And he warns that as people prepare to lock up their homes and leave for a fortnight's holiday, now is a crucial time to be extra vigilant and take steps to ensure that everything is still in place when they return.

By now, we should all know the usual checklist like joining a Neighbourhood Watch scheme; cancelling milk and papers; using time switches on room lights and asking neighbours to keep an eye on the property.

But there are other steps useful specifically to protect outside effects. For a start, make an inventory of what you own. The list should include any statuary, garden benches and ornaments and the like and also any valuable plants, and machinery such as a sit-on mower (and the Koi carp you've just paid £1,000 apiece for).

Get a professional valuation of what’s on the list – before anything is stolen and take out insurance. Then any loss is covered and armed with your valuation, negotiations for replacement from the insurers is less of a trial. Losing an heirloom is bad enough, arguing with the insurance company about what it's worth is even worse. Specialist companies such as Axa and Hiscox have policies specifically to cover gardens.

External security lighting is also worth considering. Halogen lights with passive infrared detectors are now not expensive and can be fitted easily by someone with a modicum of knowledge. More expensive and the preserve of the specialist electrician are wire-free alarm systems which can be placed around the garden and provide an invisible but highly sensitive protection zone for valuable fixtures and fittings.

Commonsense also makes a difference. Lock sheds and garages securely; chain up ladders so they cannot be used in your absence; mark valuable objects with your postcode, ideally by etching the surface; take photographs and record the dimensions and significant marks of important pieces; and don't assume that because a piece of garden statuary is set in concrete, weighs a ton, and stands in a garden with six-feet high walls it can't be stolen. Experience proves that even the heaviest and bulkiest garden statuary is vulnerable to theft.

Wherever possible, such pieces should be sited as close to the house as possible, where they can be seen by you and by passers-by. However, one of the best deterrents is the construction of some sort of anchor. More often than not, this can be provided by a hook set into the ground onto which the piece is fastened at the point of installation. If that is not possible, consider some kind of securing steel strapwork which could be bolted over the piece to make removal impossible.

And if after all this a piece is stolen, be sure to circulate photographs and a full description to the authorities, local auction rooms and dealers and magazines such as Trace.

* Chester Valuation Company is on +44 (0) 1244 674592 or

Pictures show - Top: The Goddess of the Harvest – stolen from Sledmere House in East Yorkshire and spirited on to a ship to Chicago with a matter of weeks. As luck would have it, the owner, Sir Tatton Sykes, sent a picture and description to Trace magazine which led to its recovery and return earlier this month

Above: Desirable garden statuary is often a feature of a good house contents sale. Fortunately, this pair of late 19th century Travertine marble lions made £9,600 were still in place when Sotheby’s sold the contents of Thornton Manor, Wirral, the home of Lord Leverhulme. They fetched £9,600

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