Lost or stolen? The treasures missing from Scotland’s museums

Children Wading by Scottish artist Robert Gemmell Hutchison depicts two young girls paddling along the water's edge on a warm summer's day
Children Wading by Scottish artist Robert Gemmell Hutchison was stolen in 1989

There are tens of millions of items in the collections of Scotland’s galleries and museums, but the whereabouts of thousands of them is unknown.

BBC Scotland News asked some of the country’s most popular galleries and museums for records of items lost, stolen and missing.

The responses show that a wide range of objects, from ancient relics to expensive artwork, are unaccounted for.

It comes after 2,000 items went missing from the British Museum in London.

A member of staff has been dismissed, the Met Police have launched an investigation, and the museum has appealed for help from the public to recover the artefacts.

Many of the Scottish institutions contacted by the BBC suggested most of their missing items were the victims of poor record-keeping, rather than any criminal endeavours.

The bizarre items missing from Scotland’s museums

Rozelle House in Ayr
A large bottle marked “poison” is missing from Rozelle House in Ayr

To misplace one life-size figure of a Japanese man in native costume is perhaps careless, but to do it twice is exactly what happened at Glasgow’s Museum of Transport stores in 2018.

Glasgow Life, the body which runs the city’s museums and galleries, lists both items as “unlocated to date”.

Elsewhere in Glasgow, the Hunterian Zoology Museum had a dolphin skull stolen some time between 2010 and 2021, while the city’s “no mean city” reputation perhaps explains why a set of iron knuckle dusters went missing from the People’s Palace in 2005.

Meanwhile, South Ayrshire museums reports that a large bottle marked Poison is missing from Rozelle House in Ayr.

In Edinburgh, Bute House, the official residence of the first minister, reported that a brass lamp was “missing” in 2016, while in 2020 a Georgian mahogany armchair was marked as “not found”.

More than 4,000 items are reported as lost, stolen or missing at the National Library of Scotland, which includes book titles such as Among ThievesTo Catch a ThiefPlunder Squad and A Burglar’s Life Story.

Other riskier titles, such as The Irish Kama Sutra and Sexual Anomalies and Perversions are also missing.

The National Museum of Scotland reports that a flying suit, goggles and flight jacket were stolen in November 1986 – a robbery perhaps influenced by the fact the first Top Gun film came out just weeks before.

The valuable

Possibly the most valuable item currently missing from Scotland’s museums and galleries is a £3 million sculpture by world-famous artist Auguste Rodin.

Officials at Glasgow Museums said a plaster version of Les Bourgeois de Calais was purchased in 1901 but they are currently unable to locate it.

Among the other famous artworks “unlocated” in Glasgow is part of a painting of Sir Billy Connolly’s banjo by artist John Byrne.

Billy Connolly's Banjo by John Byrne
The original left panel of this two-part painting (diptych) went missing in 2005 but it was later recreated by artist John Byrne.

The 1974 work features Sir Billy’s instrument propped up against a wall with a shadow over it.

It went missing in 2005, but John Byrne recreated the missing section and gifted it to the city in 2017.

Works by Thomas Gainsborough, Carlo Maratti, Sebastien Vrancx and Cornelis Vroom are all “unlocated” from Glasgow’s collections.

In Aberdeen, a total of 1,330 artefacts and artworks worth almost £200,000 are missing from the council collection, including old coins, books, clothing, photographs and drawings.

Police issued photographs of the coins stolen from the National Museum of Scotland

At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburghtwo gold coins from the James VI era, along with a Mary, Queen of Scots gold three pound piece dating from 1555, were stolen in 2015.

At the time, they were said to be worth about £20,000.

The brazen

On the list of items stolen from The Hunterian museum in Glasgow, are about 200 gemstones worth about £130,000 in today’s money which were taken in a 1962 heist.

A rare 18th Century yellow diamond ring belonging to Hunterian founder Dr William Hunter was among the items taken at a time when the museum had no attendants in the galleries and the glass cases had clip-on fabric covers.

Bronze version of Le Bourgeois de Calais
A bronze of Les Bourgeois de Calais is on display outside the Houses of Parliament.

But it is not just museums and galleries which are targeted by thieves.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh reported five instances in 2022 where people trying to steal plants and seed from public areas of the Edinburgh garden were intercepted by staff.

The world-famous garden had previously been forced to install CCTV after thieves stole rare plants from its collection to sell on eBay.

And finally

There was an upbeat tone to some of the responses received by BBC Scotland – that all was not in fact lost.

Many organisations suggested that poor historic record-keeping, and the mammoth task of digitising these records, meant most missing items were just that, and had not been stolen.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
People caught trying to steal plants had to be escorted from The Royal Botanic Garden.

In some cases the missing items do turn up again.

Glasgow Life recently had a painting that was missing for more than 30 years returned to them.

Children Wading, painted by Robert Gemmell Hutchison in 1918, was stolen from Haggs Castle Museum of Childhood in 1989, but was found after being put up for auction by an unsuspecting seller.

Top picture: Artist John Byrne whose painting of Billy Connolly the banjo player was stolen and had to be replaced by the artist himself.

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