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National Trust rescue salvers from Malta

IT HAS taken 12 years, an international police inquiry and a decade of legal battles to bring them back to the North West.

IT HAS taken 12 years, an international police inquiry and a decade of legal battles to bring them back to the North West.

But, thanks to an extraordinary coincidence, the lost silver salvers of Tatton Park have finally come home.

Since they were stolen by professional thieves in 1987, there has been an empty space in the dining room of the Old Hall in Tatton Park where the two silver gilt rose water dishes once had pride of place.

The story of how the 18th-century plates were discovered is as intriguing as the history of Tatton Park itself.

The salvers, which date from 1786, were part of a £250,000 collection of silver in the dining room at Cheshire's most famous country mansion.

They were used by the Egerton family, which bought the estate 400 years ago, to entertain guests, including members of the Royal family.

In June, 1987, professional thieves raided the dining room, escaping with the entire collection.

Security was stepped up after the incident and a police investigation was launched.

But attempts to trace the missing silverware, which is owned by the National Trust, proved fruitless.

Then, in May, 1989, the wife of John Hickett-Wilson, a silverware expert at Sotheby's auction house in Chester, spotted the missing plates in the window of a jewellers' shop in Valletta, Malta.

Unaware of their origins, she had thought they might be of interest to her husband.

Upon her return, she happened to visit Tatton Park, where she learned that the plates had been stolen.

She told the room steward of her discovery in Malta and the National Trust, with the help of Interpol, Cheshire Police and the British High Commission, began tracking them down.

Detectives from Wilmslow CID made the 3,000 mile round-trip to Malta with the National Trust's Historic Buildings officer, Julian Gibbs, to identify the plates.

But attempts to reclaim the salvers failed when the shopkeeper successfully argued through the Maltese courts that he had bought them in good faith from a tall, blond Englishman who had told him they were part of his inheritance.

A succession of court cases followed.

Finally, after a 10-year legal wrangle, the Maltese courts ruled that the jeweller had purchased the plates in good faith.

The National Trust had no option but to buy them back at their original purchase price of £7,000.

Now, the deal has been completed and the striking silver salvers have been shipped back to Cheshire.

They will be on display in the dining room during the forthcoming visitors' season.

Tatton Park manager Graham Hicks said: "We are very pleased to have them back.

"We have known exactly where they were for a long time, but we could not get our hands on them.

"They are very valuable pieces in their own right."

Julian Gibbs, of the National Trust, said: "We were delighted when we discovered their whereabouts.

"The silver collection, together with all the important contents of Tatton, was left to the National Trust by Maurice Lord Egerton for the benefit of the nation and the theft was a great loss to the collection.

"The National Trust attempted to get the plates back through the legal process but when that failed, we had to find the necessary funds to purchase the items.

"Thanks to the efforts of the Maltese lawyers acting for the Trust, we have been able to return the silver to its rightful place."

The whereabouts of the remainder of the silver collection remains a mystery.

The culprits were never found but two wine coolers from the collection turned up at a Christie's auction and were later returned.

Mr Hicks said: "We have had two other pieces returned in 1991, but since then, nothing.

"The rest of the silverware could be anywhere in the world. But there is always hope that they could turn up as the market for this kind of silverware is relatively small."

A spokesman for Cheshire Police said: "This crime has never been detected but the file remains open.

"There are obvious difficulties in moving forward with a 12-year-old case but if any more information were to come to light we would certainly look into it."

The gilt rose water dishes are regarded as collectors' items by aficionados of 18th century period silver.

The dishes feature a shaped gadroon border embossed with oak leaves and acorns, while their centre features floral and leafage sprays. Made in London in 1768 by Thomas Heming, they were purchased by the Egerton family at a sale held by HRH the Duke of York in 1827.

The Egertons were a noted family of knights and gentlemen with several prosperous branches in Cheshire.

Sir Thomas Egerton was the founding father of Tatton Park and his lavish tastes set the tone for generations of fashionable and innovative additions to the house's furnishings and contents.

The plates were purchased by Maurice Egerton, the fourth Baron, who built the estate's huge Tenant's Hall to house his collection of trophies and ethnographical treasures from around the world.

The salvers are typical of the finery which reflected the growing wealth and taste of the Egertons at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.

They were kept in the house's stunning dining room, which played host to, among others, their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, who stayed at Tatton Park in 1887 during their visit to Manchester to open the Royal Jubilee Exhibition.


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
David Norbury
Mike Fuller
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