Northern Ireland man jailed over £57m museum thefts
A Belfast rug trader has been jailed along with 13 other members of an organised crime gang for the theft of artefacts worth £57m from museums and an auction house in England.
Long-standing city centre trader Terence McNamara (46) of Marquis Street in Belfast was sentenced to four years yesterday at Birmingham Crown Court for conspiracy to steal.
The 13 other gang members from across England received sentences on Monday and yesterday ranging from 15 months to six years and eight months.
Chinese jade and rhino horn were among the precious objects targeted in two thefts and an attempted theft at Durham University Oriental Museum between November 2011 and April 2012.
There were further incidents at Gorringes Auction House in Lewes, Norwich Castle Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Judge Murray Creed heard that although the stolen objects were valued at £17m, they could have been sold for up to £57m on the booming Chinese auction market.
The latest jail sentences follow a four year police operation and months of phone monitoring. Many of the stolen objects have not been recovered and the lead investigator admitted the gang's "top person" is still on the run.
The gang were dubbed the Rathkeale Rovers because of their links to the town in the Republic.
Addressing 43-year-old Michael Hegarty, of Orchard Drive in Cottenham, and Rathkeale in the Republic, the judge said: "I believe you were controlling him (McNamara) in relation to events at Durham Museum in the first instance." Hegarty was jailed for six-and-a-half years.
Gang members also masterminded a bungled attempted theft at Gorringes Auction House in Lewes, East Sussex, and organised the disposal of stolen artefacts in what the judge said was "an extremely sophisticated conspiracy".
The judge said the operation to "plunder" rhino horn, carved horn and jade items began "small-scale" in January 2012, but after initial failures - in one case the burglars forgot where they had hidden their haul - "planning paid off".
In their biggest raid, 18 pieces of Chinese jade were stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum and although experts provided valuations up to almost £18m, the judge described them as "priceless".
The judge said the conspiracy was centred on the O'Brien home in Rathkeale. He said: "Of 14 original conspirators, seven were connected with that home, seven were associates, like Terence McNamara, while others were recruited to find thieves prepared to carry out burglaries."