‘Irreplaceable’ Artifacts Stolen From a Museum in Sheffield, England

The 12 items are part of the region’s rich history as a metalworking capital

Dragonfly and kingfisher
This stainless steel scuplture was one of 12 artifacts stolen from the Kelham Island Museum. Jason Heppenstall / Kelham Island Museum

Thieves stole a dozen objects, some dating back to the 1700s, from a museum in Sheffield, England, over the weekend. 

“The historical significance of these items goes far beyond any financial value they hold,” says Kim Streets, chief executive of Sheffield Museums Trust, in a statement. “[They] are irreplaceable touchstones of Sheffield’s rich heritage.”

For hundreds of years, Sheffield has been a central player in the cutlery industry. The city served as the capital for steelmaking and had a rich tradition of hosting “little mesters,” workers who crafted small knives and other cutlery to order. 

Multi knife
An exhibition knife from the late 1800s with 104 blades Toolbank Collection

The stolen items include a folding knife with nine-carat gold scales (1904), an exhibition knife with 104 blades (1800), a sterling silver coffee pot (1773) and four sculptures made from stainless steel cutlery, among others. All are “very distinctive,” adds Streets, and should be identifiable if they turn up on the market.  

So far, details about the robbery are scarce. According to a statement from the South Yorkshire police, the thieves broke into the Kelham Island Museum in the early morning of May 14, proceeding to pocket the items and damage their display cases. Authorities haven’t yet identified the robbers, and they’re asking the public for leads.

The Kelham Island Museum examines the area’s industrial history—and the stolen artifacts are “a prime example of the Steel City’s metalwork heritage,” writes Tom Seymour of the Art Newspaper

The first mention of steel in connection to the region dates to the mid-17th century, and the craft of making cutlery defined Sheffield and its surrounding areas even then. The industry took off in the 1800s, and by the middle of the century “nearly half the European output of steel was made in the Sheffield district,” wrote historian David Hay in the journal Northern History in 2013.

Tortoiseshell knife
A folding knife with tortoiseshell scales and gold piue decoration from the 1800s Hawley Tool Collection

Several of the items stolen from the museum were made by Stan Shaw, the region’s last “little mester,” who died in 2021. Throughout his life, Shaw crafted knives for Elvis Presley, Elizabeth II and several U.S. presidents, according to BBC News.

His daughter, Jane Lees, told the broadcaster that Shaw’s work is “priceless,” and that she would never sell the pieces in her possession.

In recent months, burglars have targeted cultural sites in the area on several occasions, though authorities don’t know if the incidents are connected.

In the winter, the Sheffield Assay Office, which tests the purity of various metals, became a target when thieves stole over $100,000 worth of silverware.

The items lost in these robberies “are totally irreplaceable,” says Ashley Carson of the Assay Office in the statement. “This is the latest in a string of robberies in the city and these criminals need to be stopped.”

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