Blog Subscription via

August 20, 2023

A London organised crime gang and a museum theft of £2 million of Chinese Porcelain

Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient

The lucrative market for stolen Chinese antiquities has led to several high-profile heists in recent years as well as a series of convictions.  In May 2022 the prosecutor's office in Geneva released the first-ever details about a daring heist committed on June 1, 2019 in the centre of Geneva.  On that date, two later identified accomplices, wearing masks and gloves, broke into the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, housed in an elegant, late-19th-century townhouse, by smashing a glass pane out from the front door.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Once inside, the burglars, believed to be professional thieves, shattered one of the protective display cases and made off with a grouping of Chinese imperial ceramics, valued at 3,6 million francs.  

At the time of the incident, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 pounds, 
  • An rare “Sweet White” 甜白 glazed Pomegranate bottle vase dating to the Yongle period (1400 – 1425), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), 
  • A “doucai-style” wine cup with chicken decorations.

The primary burglary suspects in the case are subsequently determined to be two British nationals, brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) from south-east London.

In 2019, the stolen bowl, valued at 80,000 pounds, was returned to the Museum of Far Eastern Art after it was identified as having been sold at an auction in Hong Kong that same year.  By May 2020 Louis Ahearne would already be serving a five-year jail sentence for a separate residential burglary relating to a theft he carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 at a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent, just one month after the museum break-in.  In that case, forensics teams detected bloodstains which provided a DNA match to Bowen.   Officers had recognised Ahearne and Kelly as two of the culprits after viewing CCTV at the time of the crime. 

In July 2020 the Metropolitan Police in London received an important tip from a yet unnamed auction house who advised them that an unknown individual had e-mailed them with knowledge of the whereabouts of a second item from the 2019 Museum of Far Eastern Art theft: the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

To recover the rare vase, an operation was led by Trident officers in Specialist Crime, a police unit dedicated to investigating violent crime in London's communities.  Officers then traced the IP address for the email account to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of David Lamming (15.01.92).  In 2005, while still a juvenile, Lamming was given a two year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Asbo) for his involvement in gang related activities.  This order banned him from entering a central Lewisham estate, unless he has permission from the council.   

As the result of the auction house tip, officers begin a Joint Investigation Team with their Swiss counterparts so that both law enforcement agencies can share information and build a case against the suspects and successfully recover the stolen vase. 

Preserved tianbai, or “sweet white” 甜白 specimens of the Yongle reign (1403-1424) are rarer than contemporary blue-and-white Imperial porcelains and are known for their thin and translucent white glaze, which is said to mimic white jade.  Less opaque than earlier shufu wares, to achieve this look tianbai vase production required a combination of a kaolin-rich paste, which when fired at a high fusion temperature, produces a naturally bright white color with very low iron and titanium content.  Matched with a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash it gives objects a similar appearance to that of white jade.   

The name for this type of Chinese porcelain was coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer from the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu, which was written in 1591. In that missive, he refers to this unique type of glaze that was produced only from the Royal Kiln of Yongle, and attributed to the Emperor’s personal fondness for white vessels.  

To ensure the safe recovery of the rare stolen vase, officers elected to not arrest Lamming immediately, and instead worked to set up an undercover sting operation where they would pose as would-be buyers.  To recover the vase, they negotiate a purchase price of £450,000 with the London intermediaries and arranged to meet in a Mayfair hotel to conclude the transaction.

On October 15, 2021, having met with the undercover sting officers, police arrest Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa (18.10.75) of The Heights, Charlton and Lamming at the arranged central London hotel and recover the stolen 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty vase. 

Image of Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

After being taken into custody for questioning, officers reviewed telephone data which shows that Nkhwa and Lamming had been in regular contact with a third intermediary accomplice, Kaine Wright (30.11.96), a former West Ham United footballer from Woolwich, who had driven the pair to the hotel for the potential sale.

Nkhwa and Lamming were held on suspicion of handling stolen goods until released on bail while their court cases progressed.  Officers conducting a search of a related house in Charlton, south-east London, recover counterfeit currency, class A drugs and two suspected tasers.

By early May 2022, as the investigation progressed, the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern, Switzerland sent extradition requesta for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) to the British government, having been charged with  theft, damage to property and trespassing for their alleged role in the 1 June 2019 theft from the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art. 

Evidence gathered by the London and Swiss authorities demonstrated that both Ahearnes were in Switzerland on or before June 1, 2019 and that Stewart Ahearne's DNA was allegedly found at the scene.   CCTV images had also implicated his brother, Louis Ahearne as also being at the museum at the time of the break-in. 

Subsequent to the Swiss extradition request, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, ruled on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne was not barred and that their case should be sent to the UK's Home Secretary, who then approved their extradition later that month.   It should be noted that by this period, the brothers were already facing another extradition request from Japan regarding another matter.

On March 23rd of this year David Lamming pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to his role as an accomplice to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva. Upon conviction, he remains at liberty while on bail until his sentencing date. 

On Friday, August 18th, a jury at Southwark Crown Court returned unanimous guilty verdicts for Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright in relation to their roles as an accomplices to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.  Each were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property and ordered to remain in custody.  

From left to right: David Lamming, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright
Image Credit: Metropolitan Police

Lamming, Nkhwa, and Wright are currently scheduled to be sentenced on October 13, 2023. 

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Officers from London's Metropolitan Police are appealing for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019 and are offering up to £10,000 for information leading to the recovery of the Ming Dynasty, "chicken" cup.

This porcelain wine-cup, made in the Ch’eng-hua Reign of the Great Ming, is decorated in doucai style with an underglaze of blue washes with two blue bands at the top and one at the bottom. The cup depicts a rooster, hen and chicks with lilies and peony shrubs behind. 

Anyone with information about its whereabouts can contact police referencing Operation Funsea or to remain anonymous contact the independent charity Crimestoppers.