The Christ Church Picture Gallery at Oxford University boasts some 300 paintings and 2,000 drawings, among them a robust collection of Old Master artworks. But three of the gallery’s precious holdings have now vanished in a mysterious heist, prompting police to put out an appeal for information.
In a statement, Thames Valley Police said the burglary took place at 11 p.m. on Saturday night, when as-yet-unidentified “offenders” broke into the gallery and stole three artworks: A Boy Drinking by Annibale Carracci, a leading figure of the Baroque movement; A Rocky Coast, With Soldiers Studying a Plan, by Italian painter Salvator Rosa; and A Soldier on Horseback by Anthony van Dyck, a titan of the Flemish Baroque. The paintings date to approximately 1580, the late 1640s and 1618, respectively.
“The artwork has not yet been recovered but a thorough investigation is underway to find it and bring those responsible to justice,” says investigating officer Detective Chief Inspector Jon Capps. “There will be an increased police presence in the area while officer[s] and staff carry out enquiries.”
Part of Oxford’s Christ Church College, the Picture Gallery got its start in 1765, when an army officer and art collector named John Guise bequeathed his collection of 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings to his former college. The gift helped jumpstart the study of art at Oxford, allowing pupils to view a rich array of masterpieces without having to travel to Italy or gain access to England’s stately homes, where most of the country’s art collections were held at the time. Today, the gallery is viewed as one of the United Kingdom’s most important private collections of Old Master drawings, among them works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Together, the three stolen paintings could be worth around £10 million (roughly $12 million USD) if sold on the open market, art historian Bendor Grosvenor tells Matthew Moore of the Times. But as English art dealer Philip Mould notes on Twitter, selling these works on a legitimate market would be “impossible.”
“The purpose of similar heists include: private theft to order; ransom objects (rarely effective); or collateral in underworld deals,” Mould adds, noting that the selection of pilfered paintings is rather unusual—“neither priceless nor small fry.”
As the investigation is underway, police are asking members of the public who may have seen or heard something suspicious in the area to get in touch. Authorities are also asking people to come forward if they have any CCTV or other footage that might shed light on the crime.
Christ Church said that its gallery is now closed until further notice. Inadvertently, it appears, the thieves have brought the gallery in league with a host of other U.K. art institutions that have shut their doors due to COVID-19. Oxford itself has said that it will be transitioning to online teaching and assessments.
“Gosh,” writes Mould on Twitter, “This is a serious theft at a time when we have other things to worry about.”