A historic church in the City of London is to be reunited with a magnificent 16th-century carving that was stolen from it decades ago.
St Katharine Cree church in Leadenhall Street is a survivor of both the Great Fire of 1666 and the second world war blitz, while the 80cm-high alabaster carving was part of a monument to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a prominent figure in the reign of Elizabeth I, dating from the 1570s. The diplomat was the uncle of Sir Francis Throckmorton, a conspirator in the Throckmorton Plot.
Klaas Muller, an art specialist in Brussels, bought the work in good faith in Belgium last year. He agreed to return it unconditionally after being approached by Christopher A Marinello, a lawyer and director of Art Recovery International, which specialises in the recovery of stolen, missing and disputed cultural property.
Marinello, who acted pro bono for St Katharine Cree, said it was an honour to return a sculpture of such importance to the church.
He said: “As a good faith buyer under Belgian law, Muller could have easily defended his possession of this monument. Instead, he chose to be magnanimous by willingly and enthusiastically returning a work of art that clearly belongs to St Katharine Cree.
“Muller’s actions should teach the trade a thing or two about the possession of stolen and looted works of art. It is not always about protecting profits and it is always the season to do the right thing.”
Phil Manning, a churchwarden at St Katharine Cree, said: “This is an amazing time for this carving to be coming back to the church … The building is on the heritage at risk register and there are significant plans for its restoration over the next few years. The return of a fine piece of carving which belongs on an existing monument of a historically important figure is really quite something.
“It is not only a beautiful object but a gateway to the understanding and interpretation of our heritage.”
With medieval foundations, St Katharine Cree is an important 1630s building with a 16th-century tower. Its imposing Jacobean architecture, including perpendicular vaulting and neoclassical arches, is unique in London. Its original organ was played by Purcell and Handel.
Manning said that the church was consecrated in 1630 by William Laud, the Bishop of London, who was later accused of treason and executed in 1645.
“The way he conducted the consecration service was used in evidence at his trial to suggest that he was actually a Catholic,” said Manning. “The account of the service describes much genuflecting and bowing. On entering the church, he threw dust into the air and declared: ‘This is holy ground.’ His emphasis was on the beauty of holiness, but the zeal with which he sought to reform public worship made him a number of enemies, notably among the Puritans, and this led to his downfall.”
A 1793 engraving and a 1929 photograph show the Throckmorton monument in its complete state. Precisely when the carving disappeared is unclear.
Muller will be out of pocket by thousands of pounds, although he had paid a fraction of the work’s true value. He bought it from a fellow dealer, and said he is hoping for a refund.
Muller was shocked when he first realised that it belonged to the church. He said that, “historically and ethically”, returning it was the right thing to do, adding: “I thought it could be a nice Christmas present.”
The recovery was made possible by Patrick Damiaens, a Belgian ornamental and heraldic woodcarver, who was shown the carving by Muller. Intrigued, Damiaens began researching it, and his detective work established its significance.
The craftsmanship is of such high quality that it may have come from a workshop in Southwark where many Flemish refugees settled in the 16th century.
For Marinello and Manning, history is repeating itself. In 2010, they recovered a 17th-century alabaster bust of Peter Turner, a botanist and physician, that had been stolen from another City of London church, St Olave’s, during the blitz. It too had ended up with a Belgian dealer, who agreed to return it.