Mystery of antique gold snuff boxes returned to Leeds' Temple Newsam after 40 years

Mystery has long surrounded the fate of antique gold snuff boxes which vanished without trace from the drawing room of a Leeds stately home some 40 years ago.

Now the fascinating riddle has begun to unravel as they are returned at last by art investigators who discovered them at auction under an unwitting sale.

The collection of ornate, late 18th century gold snuff boxes was donated to Leeds’ Temple Newsam estate at the outbreak of war by a business magnate called Frank Fulford.

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They are believed to have been pilfered in a raid dubbed ‘The Fulford Thefts’ after they were put on display in the historic house’s Chinese drawing room back in 1981.

Registrar and collections manager Sarah Murray at Temple Newsam House in Leeds with one of the stolen 18th Century golden snuff boxes. Picture Tony Johnson

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Adam Toole, keeper at Temple Newsam House, said he was “immeasurably grateful” to investigators for their pro-bono diligence in ensuring a return.

“The disappearance of these beautiful boxes was a great loss to Temple Newsam and to the city, so we’re delighted that these treasures are in our collection once more,” he said.

“It’s extremely rare to find objects which have such a captivating combination of classic artistry and modern-day intrigue and we can’t wait to share this remarkable story with our visitors.

Stolen 18th Century golden snuff boxes which have been returned to Temple Newsam House after being tracked down by the Art Loss Register. Picture Tony Johnson

"It's a real tragedy that they were stolen from the people of Leeds, so to recover them is just magnificent."

Canadian-born Fulford had brought his brother’s ‘Bile Beans’ laxative business to Leeds in 1902, research by The Thoresby Society details, which though tainted with accusations of ‘quackery’ was soon a household name. He is remembered most often today both for his kindness and for his generosity.

Generosity

A talented viola player, he had been a patron of the arts and a “discriminating” collector, the society said, filling the grand gothic splendour of Headingley Castle with a rich store of treasures. He gave much to enrich his adopted city, including rare chamber music to Leeds University Library and the gold snuff boxes to Temple Newsam.

Adam Toole, curator at Temple Newsam House in Leeds with one of the 18th Century golden snuff boxes. Image by Tony Johnson.

Dating as far back as 1770, each box in the collection features intricate gold metalwork and delicate, decorative enamel designs under either French, Swiss or German craftmanship.

They were thought lost until a team of experts from the Art Loss Register, tracking down stolen art and antiquities, discovered them for sale.

They were brought back to Temple Newsam on Tuesday and will now once again become a part of the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection under Leeds Council.

Return

One of the golden snuff boxes which has been returned to Temple Newsam House in Leeds after being tracked down by the Art Loss Register. Picture Tony Johnson

James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries at the Art Loss Register, said it was an “unfortunate” man who had found himself innocently in possession of the boxes, but that it was satisfying to see due diligence result in their return.

Insurers MMI and Zurich Mutual had worked together on the loss, deciding to return the boxes to their original owners, with Zurich's Alistair McCloud saying he was "delighted" that such important artefacts are now back where they belong.

"It's great news for everyone concerned and that these historical items can once again be enjoyed by visitors to the museum for many years to come.”

The recovered boxes will now be carefully conserved by experts at Temple Newsam before they go on display again next year.

'Captivating'

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for culture, said: “This is a captivating story which sheds more light on the remarkable history of Temple Newsam and why it’s such an important part of our city’s history and heritage.

“It’s amazing to see these beautiful objects return to their rightful home in Leeds where they will become the newest addition to the world class Leeds Museums and Galleries collection.”

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