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News: Rare Bust Looted In The Blitz Is Returned After Seventy Years

Published 25 August 2011, 17:27

The 17th-century sculpture of Dr Peter Turner. (Courtesy of Dreweatts)

Following the end of a fourteen-month legal dispute, and having since undergone conservation, the 1614 statue believed to have been stolen during an air-raid is due to be returned to a church in the City of London.

The small church of St Olave’s in Hart Street, near Fenchurch Street Station, was one of only a handful of medieval churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but it could not escape the bombs of the Luftwaffe. This fifteenth-century church (built on the site of an earlier place of worship) was notable for being the one that the famous diarist and naval reformer Samuel Pepys used to attend – in recognition of which it had a designated “Admiralty” pew.

The church was named after King Olaf II of Norway, who fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, King Haakon VII escaped to the UK. Taking up his exile in London, he maintained the church’s Norwegian connection by worshipping at St Olave’s until, on the night of 17 April 1941, the church was severely damaged.

It was in the confusion following the bombing that the 17th-century sculpture of Dr Peter Turner, a eminent botanist and physician, disappeared from its position in the nave. This was one of the worst days of the Blitz for this part of London, being remembered as “Blitz Wednesday”.

The church was restored after the war and in 1954 King Haakon returned to preside over the rededication ceremony.

Thought lost forever, word that the bust was due to be sold by the auctioneers Dreweatts was received by a curator at the Museum of London, who then contacted church officials. The matter was then passed onto the Art Loss Register, which specialises in tracking down lost or stolen pieces of art. The result was that the alabaster bust, valued at some £70,000, was withdrawn from the impending sale.

Documentation accompanying the sculpture stated: “Presumably the bust of Dr Turner was salvaged from the ruins (of the church) but its history since the Blitz is undocumented.”

Investigations have since disclosed a chain of previous buyers of the bust, including a dealer in the Netherlands. Following the end of a fourteen-month legal dispute, and having since undergone conservation, the 1614 statue will finally be returned to the church.


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