Sunday, 15 September 2019 04:59

Burglars steal solid gold toilet worth N2.4bn from palace

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A solid 18-carat gold toilet, worth £5 million (N2.4 billion), was stolen from Blenheim Palace in the early hours of yesterday and remains missing. 

The golden lavatory went on display two days ago and was designed by controversial Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. 

It was installed as part of a new exhibition at the Oxfordshire palace, the birthplace of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in November 1874.

Visitors to Blenheim Palace were able to use the five million-pound toilet and were allocated a strict three-minute time slot.  

Thames Valley Police confirmed the toilet was stolen and a 66-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the theft and remains in police custody.  

Who inherited Blenheim Palace?   

Jamie Spencer-Churchill, 63, known as Jamie Blandford, was confirmed in 2014 as the 12th Duke of Marlborough following the death of his father the late Duke of Marlborough, aged 88.   

At the time of his father's death, a spokeswoman for Blenheim Palace said it was 'too early to say' if he would choose to live in the palace. 

Blandford battled addictions to heroin and cocaine and endured three spells in prison, with the result that his father took legal action to protect the 11,500-acre family estate where Sir Winston Churchill was born.

In 1983, Blandford was fined £100 for assaulting a policeman, and the following year was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for a breach of probation.

He was put on probation again in 1985 and fined £1,000 for breaking into a chemist's shop — and, a year later, convicted once more of drug offences. At the time, he admitted spending £20,000 on cocaine in four months. 

Dominic Hare, chief executive officer of Blenheim Palace, told BBC the toilet is valued at about six million dollars and was a 'very precious piece'.

He said the theft of the solid gold toilet 'was a huge shock'.

'Staff were instantly aware of what happened and police arrived very, very quickly indeed,' he added.

When asked if the artist had been contacted, he said: 'There were some slightly nervous calls at 6am but we have spoken to the artist and Lord Edward at the art foundation, and many of the trustees, and they have been magnificent in their support.'

Mr Hare added: 'We have a sophisticated security set-up here and we have had no loss of this kind in living memory, which probably reflects the quality of that operation.

'The events of the last 24 hours mean we may have reason to reconsider some of our systems.' 

He was also asked whether a party, which took place at the palace on Friday night, could have created an opportunity for the theft.

In response, he said: 'We have been asked not to comment on the investigation. But there was a clear time separation between those things.

'There is always a risk when you display valuable art to the public, but it is worth that risk, even now, it was still worth that risk.'

Confirming that the palace would reopen on Sunday following repair works, Mr Hare explained: 'We've now got a huge hole where there was once a golden toilet.'

Detective Inspector Jess Milne said: 'The piece of art that has been stolen is a high value toilet made out of gold that was on display at the palace.' 

Inspector Richard Nicholls added: 'We are aware they left about 4.50am this morning. CCTV is one of the aspects we are looking on and that will come out in due course.' 

When asked if he believed a reception party held on the same night of the exhibition's launch could be connected, Insp Nicholls said: 'I am not aware of the reception party personally, but that would form part of our enquiries in order to ascertain events leading up to the item being stolen.' 

Insp Nicholls said he was only aware of the toilet being stolen and could not comment as to how the property was accessed.   

The fully-functioning solid gold toilet was created by Cattelan for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where more than 100,000 people queued to use the security-guarded loo. 

Now, after more than 20 years, the exhibition marks Cattelan's first solo show in Britain. 

To celebrate this, his most controversial works have been placed in and around the Palace in Oxfordshire to engage and contrast with its unique history. 

Aside from the toilet, the pieces also include his famous taxidermy horse 'Novecento' suspended from the ceiling of one of the portrait rooms, a model of a schoolboy version of Adolf Hitler on his knees praying and a realistic model of Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite. 

The theft of the golden lavatory comes after the Duke of Marlborough's half-brother, Edward Spencer-Churchill, said last month it wouldn't be 'the easiest thing to nick'.

Mr Spencer-Churchill told The Times: 'Firstly, it's plumbed in and secondly, a potential thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate.

'So no, I don't plan to be guarding it.'

Thames Valley Police said the offenders broke into the palace overnight and left the scene at about 4.50am. 

There was no injuries during the burglary.  

Detective Inspector Jess Milne said: 'Due to the toilet being plumbed in to the building, this has caused significant damage and flooding.' 

Detective Inspector Milne added: 'We believe a group offenders used at least two vehicles during the offence.

'The artwork has not been recovered at this time but we are conducting a thorough investigation to find it and bring those responsible to justice.

She continued: 'Residents will see an increased police presence in the area while officers and staff carry out enquiries.' 

'I am appealing to anyone who saw or heard anything suspicious in the area to contact police.

Thames Valley Police said they received a report of the burglary at Blenheim Palace at 4.57am.    

The golden toilet had proved popular at the Guggenheim and has been described by critics as a pointed satire against the excesses of wealth.

The sculpture hit the headlines last year after it was offered to US President Donald Trump by the chief curator of the Guggenheim museum in New York, its former home.

Cattelan has previously said: 'Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.'

More than 100,000 people made use of its 'participatory nature' at the Fifth Avenue museum between 2016 and 2017, making available to the public 'an extravagant luxury product seemingly intended for the 1%,' said the Guggenheim website.   

Blenheim Palace chief executive Dominic Hare has urged anyone with any information to contact police.

He said: 'We are saddened by this extraordinary event, but also relieved no-one was hurt.

'We are very grateful to our staff and to Thames Valley Police for their rapid and brave reactions.

'We knew there was huge interest in the Maurizio Cattelan contemporary art exhibition, with many set to come and enjoy the installations.'

'It's therefore a great shame an item so precious has been taken, but we still have so many fascinating treasures in the palace and the remaining items of the exhibition to share.

'The investigation continues, but it will be business as usual from tomorrow, so visitors can continue to come and experience all we have to offer.

Maurizio Cattelan is one of the most controversial contemporary artists of our time, notorious for his satirical sculptures and provocative installations. 

Now 58 and living and working in New York City, he was born in 1960 in Padua, Italy. 

He began his artistic career in his twenties, making wooden furniture in the Italian city of Forli in the 1980s.

One of his earliest pieces, a sign of things to come, was an ostrich with its head buried in the ground, made to look like Pablo Picasso and taped to a wall of a Milan art gallery. 

He first achieved worldwide notoriety in 1999 when he revealed his work La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)  a wax statue of Pope John Paul II being struck by a meteorite.   

In 2011 he caused further controversy with 'others' a collection of 2,000 stuffed pigeons, presented at the 54th Venice Biennale art exhibition.

It was in this year that he had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where all his pieces were suspended from the ceiling. 

After roaring success, five years later in 2015, Cattelan decided to replace one of the toilets in the museum with a fully-functioning replica made of 18-karat gold.

More than 100,000 people queued to use it.  Among his other notable works are 'Him', a wax model of a schoolboy version of Hitler kneeling on the floor in prayer and his many taxidermy pieces, including an entire horse and crocodile suspended upside down from the ceiling. 


Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye