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January 25, 2024

New Convictions and Sentences in the Geneva Museum Heist Saga

May 31, 2019: Prelude to the Heist

The account of the Geneva Museum Heist begins on May 31, 2019, when British national Stewart Ahearne takes a British Airways flight from London City Airport to Geneva, setting the stage for the subsequent burglary the following night at Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Records indicate that he also rented a Renault SUV, which matched the description of the vehicle captured outside the museum at the time of the burglary. 

June 1, 2019 - The Heist Unfolds:

On the evening of June 1, 2019, brothers Stewart and Louis Ahearne, alongside a later publically identified third individual executed a planned break-in at the late-19th-century townhouse. Wearing masks and gloves, they employed a saw and crowbar to breach the Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient's glass-panelled front door.

Once inside, the burglars, performing with the speed of 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.  

In and out in less than five minutes, the burglars exited the way they entered and in haste, Stewart Ahearne left behind traces of his DNA.  His brother, Louis Ahearne,  was clearly captured on CCTV footage as was the Renault SUV. 

At the time of the burglary, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft to allow law enforcement to work the investigation. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 GBP.
  • 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.

Post-Heist Activities (2019):

Shortly after the raid, the Ahearne brothers traveled to Hong Kong, where Louis Ahearne consigned the stolen bowl through China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd. where it sold for for HK$236,000 (£23,800).  Later that same year, having been identified, this bowl will be returned to the Museum.

Parallel Criminal Activities (2019-2020):

Louis Ahearne is sentenced to a five-year prison sentence on 26 May 2020 for a different burglary, carried out on 9 July 2019 just one month after the Geneva museum heist.  In this event,  Ahearne and two accomplices, Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly, broke into a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent posing as police officers to get into the gated communit off Emmetts Lane and using a blue flashing light mounted on the roof of their car

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. 

Late July 2020 and the Tip from Hong Kong:

The Metropolitan Police in London received a pivotal tip in late July from China Guardian auction in Hong Kong in late July 2020. An individual known as "Mr. Steel" had emailed the same auction house where the first object had been sold, with knowledge of the whereabouts of the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

Following confirmation from Interpol and the museum that the vase offered to the Hong Kong auction house was the one stolen from the museum, a Joint Investigation Team is formed in the UK in parallel with their Swiss counterparts.

Undercover Operation

To recover the stolen vase, Officers in  the UK trace the IP address for the email account which communicated with the Hong Kong auction house to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of an individual named David Lamming with connections to the Ahearne brothers.   Meanwhile Swiss authorities, having checked on the car hire company at Geneva Airport rented by Stewart Ahearne determine that the distance the Renault clocked while rented matches with the bidirectional distance from Geneva Airport to the museum, to a French ferry port and on to the brothers' London addresses.

To work towards the recovery of the remaining stolen pieces, an undercover operation is developed via the Trident Operational Command Unit, within the Metropolitan Police Specialist Crime Directorate.  Contacted by an undercover officer posing as an intermediary named "Paul," the police as Lamming for a "proof of life" photo, one that shows the stolen vase he hopes to sell, on top of a recent Metro newspaper as proof the vase is actually in his possession.

Rareness of this Vase, and a Plan to Recover

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 not appear too eager, and to recover the vase, they negotiate downward from the asked £1 million purchase price settling at £450,000 over a series of meetings in London.

Key Meetings and Arrests (2021):

On September 30, 2021, David Lamming met with undercover officers "Paul" and a second officer purporting to be a buyer named "Richard." The three meet at Scott's seafood restaurant in Mayfair where they discuss the purchase price of the Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

On October 7, 2021, Lamming again meets their undercover buyer "Richard", this time in the company of Stewart Ahearne at another Mayfair eatery, Delfino's trattoria.  There the officers finalise the deal, telling the pair they will buy the vase for £450,000. The exchange and purchase is then scheduled for October 15, 2021, at the Marriott Hotel in Grosvenor Square.

Marriott Hotel Encounter and Arrests (October 15, 2021):

On the day of the scheduled meeting, undercover officers entered the Marriott rendezvous room ahead of the transfer, with additional officers stationed at the hotel as backup. 

Image of Mbaki "Leslie" Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

Outside the London hotel, surveillance teams spot co-conspirator, Mbaki Nkhwa, of The Heights, Charlton. He is observed manoeuvring a sizeable black suitcase into and through the Marriott's lobby, where he eventually connects with Stewart Ahearne before the pair proceed to the agreed-upon meeting point.

Once inside the room, the pilfered "Sweet White" Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase is removed from a yellow JD Sports bag from inside the suitcase and offered to the undercover officer, who give the "go" signal for agents to move in and apprehend Nkhwa and Ahearne.

Meanwhile, outside the Marriott, David Lamming and a driver named Kaine Wright, a once-promising footballer associated with West Ham and Brentford, who were waiting for Nkhwa and Ahearne, leave the scene but are apprehended later. 

Nkhwa and Lamming will be detained briefly on suspicion of handling stolen goods and released on bail while their court cases progressed.   Stewart Ahearne is held in custody. 

Investigations at Nkhwa's residence in southeast London yield significant findings. Ahearne's passport is discovered along with a Geneva museum leaflet, where pictures of the stolen Ming Dynasty items are circled. Telephone data analysis reveals regular contact between Nkhwa, Lamming, and Wright, the driver who conveyed them to the hotel for the intended purchase.

Legal Proceedings and Extradition (2022-2023):

In early May 2022 the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern sends two  extradition requests to the British government for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) who have been charged in Switzerland 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. 

Subsequent to a Swiss request for extradition, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, rules on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne is not barred and that their extradition case should be forwarded onward for the consideration of the UK's Home Secretary.

Around this same period, the prosecutor's office in Geneva releases the first-ever details about the theft committed in 2019 at the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, publicising the names of the Ahearnes for the first time and listing them as their primary suspects. 

Also facing another extradition request from Japan for the two brothers, the UK's Home Secretary approves their extradition to the European country to appear for trial.

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

Lamming's Plea and Convictions (2023):

On March 23, 2023, David Lamming plead guilty to conspiracy to convert criminal property. Almost five months later, on August 18, 2023, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.

Sentenced in October 2023, Wright and Nkhwa are given sentences of three years and 30 months imprisonment respectively.  David Lamming is sentenced to three years and two months in prison. In adjudicating the three accomplices at their sentencing at Southwark Crown Court, Judge Martin Griffiths said each would serve six months less because of conditions inside HMP Wandsworth.

The Ahernes Trial in Geneva (January 15, 2024):

Following their extradition to Switzerland, and facing charges of theft, trespass, and property damage, Louis and Stewart Ahearne admitted to their involvement in the Geneva museum heist during their trial at the Palais de Justice in Geneva on January 15, 2024. 

Louis Ahearne claimed that he became involved in the theft because he had to "clear a debt" and broke down when answering questions about his life in Champ-Dollon prison, saying he spends his time in a cell by himself for 23 hours a day.  Stewart Ahearne went on the record saying he became involved in the plot to protect his younger brother. 

Prosecutor Marco Rossier argued that the brothers and a third man named during the trial as Kaine Wright's biological father, Daniel Kelly, were "equally involved" in the orchestrations of the burglary, noting Kelly is also the subject of extradition proceedings relating to an incident in Japan.

Both Ahearnes apologised for their actions, and were sentenced by the Swiss courts to three-and-a-half years in custody with a subsequent ban from reentering Switzerland for a period of five years once their sentences are complete.

Louis Ahearne is known to have had a relationship with Daniel Kelly through his burglary carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 one month after the museum break-in. 

Judge Patrick Monney said the damage they had caused was "considerable and may be irreparable" because one of the rare objects, known as a chicken cup has never been recovered.

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Authorities continue to appeal for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019, 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.