A father and son who stole £1.7 million worth of antique jade and ivory ornaments from the home of an elderly Wilstead widow were jailed today (Thurs).
Sentencing the pair, a judge who told them they had taken advantage of her vulnerability and failing health and had been motivated by greed.
Des Pickersgill, 83, who had once been the woman’s gardener, and his son Gary, 42, helped themselves to the oriental pieces from unlocked display cabinets during visits to her country cottage.
Then they tricked top London auction house, Bonhams into selling the pieces, which were hundreds of years old, by making out they were theirs to sell.
Jailing the father for six years and his son for eight years today (Thurs), Judge Steven Evans sitting at Luton crown court said:”Des Pickersgill took advantage of her failing health and he encouraged her to drink to further his opportunity to take items unnoticed.”
The judge told the son he had encouraged his father to continue stealing from the woman before taking over the “enterprise” himself, motivated by “greed.”
The judge went on “Your offending was born out of greed and you took over from your father and got rich quick.”
Help from friends to sell stolen goods
Gary Pickersgill’s wife Sarah, 40, who helped with the disposal of the stolen jade and ivory items by allowing her bank account to be used for monies to be into, was given a two-year community order and ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.
Friends of the Pickersgills, husband and wife Kevin and Tracy Wigmore, had also helped in the sale of the stolen goods.
Today (Thurs) Kevin Wigmore, 47, was sentenced to two years behind bars and his 49-year-old wife received a nine-month sentence suspended for 12 months and told she must carry out 200 hours of unpaid work
All five had been found guilty in July at the end of a six week trial of a string of offences in clouding fraud and money laundering in relation to the thefts.
Des Pickersgill had been a friend and neighbour of the widow and her partner in the village of Wilstead in Bedfordshire and had designed her garden.
In the years following the death of the partner, Des, who in his younger days had been a keen sportsman and county cricket player, would call round at her property on the pretence of a chat over a bottle of wine.
By then, she was in her 90s and he took advantage of her fading health and memory to regularly steal valuable items of oriental jade and ivory pieces from a collection that she and her first husband built up.
His son Gary stole items during visits to the home to carry out odd jobs.
One item of jade, an apple green jade bowl, made Gary Pickersgill a million pounds at auction. A jade teapot was sold at auction for more than half a million pounds.
The thefts were carried out over a six-and-a-half-year period between November 2011 and May of 2018.
New luxury home
In that time Gary Pickergill’s finances were transformed so that he and his wife Sarah went from being on the verge of eviction from their home in Bedford to being able to buy a luxury home with a swimming pool, paddocks and one-and-a-half acres of grounds in Spalding, Lincolnshire.
They didn’t even need a mortgage to buy it, despite the fact they had no legitimate income.
Three years later they sold the house and bought the Ivernia Hotel in the seaside town of Skegness in Lincolnshire where they still live.
Nearly 50 items were taken by the father and son from the display cabinets in the cottage, which was filled with paintings, a work by Picasso, plus books and family heirlooms.
The stolen jade and ivory figures included animals, mythical creatures, oriental antiques, bowls, vases, carvings and a spittoon worth six figures.
At the trial of the five, the jury heard the widow, who is now 96, had suffered a stroke and was looked after round the clock by carers.
She was becoming increasingly frail and forgetful but looked forward to the visits by Des Pickersgill.
He liked to call round bringing with him a bottle of wine and, after one occasion when the widow ended up tipsy, he was ticked off by the carers who, from then on, made sure they poured out the glasses.
The carers would leave the couple to talk in the woman’s comfortable lounge, but they noticed when the time came for Des Pickersgill to leave, he had always changed his seat so that he was next to a cabinet where some of the jade collection was on display.
As he made his way out of the woman’s home they noticed too his hand always seemed to be pressed against his coat or jacket at the side of his chest under his arm.
What no one realised was that items of jade were being taken by the pensioner from the unlocked display cabinets in the room and secreted under his clothing.
His son Gary would also call at the cottage to carry out odd jobs for the widow, a former Navy Wren in War War Two.
Prosecutor Ian Hope told the court an antique jade bowl sold by the son at auction “went for a cool million pounds.”
He said pale green jade teapot sold for around five million Hong Kong dollars in 2015, which was worth over half a million pounds.
The father and son had each opened accounts with Bonhams Auction House in London, where they passed off the stolen jade items as their own so that they could be sold to the highest bidders.
Ironically, the father and son’s thieving came to light following a burglary at the woman’s home on the night of 20 September 2017.
Thieves, who have never been caught, broke in through a stable door and stole items of jade and ivory from the display cabinets.
Bedfordshire Police’s fraud investigation unit began an investigation and so too did the widow’s insurance company, who appointed a fine art and antique valuer to see what had been taken and what it was worth.
Mary Griffith-Thompson decided to go to the archives of auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams to find similar pieces so that she could work out replacement values.
Working from photos of the widow’s cherished items that had been taken by her grandson, she made a startling discovery when she found that a 19th-century jade antique teapot thought to have been stolen in the raid, had in fact been sold two years earlier in 2015 through Bonhams for more than half a million pounds.
“Because it was the same teapot, she had stumbled on something of a mystery, because she was investigating a burglary in 2017 and she discovered the teapot had been sold years before the burglary took place,” said the prosecutor.
The expert discovered three items captured in the family’s photograph album had actually been sold at Bonhams of London in November 2013, November 2014 and June 2015.
The rare pale green Jade teapot, which had been sold at Bonhams for 5,920,000 Hong Kong Dollars – the equivalent of around £527,000.
This was the only teapot of this type that had been sold in the preceding 20 years.
It was identified as being identical to the teapot stolen from the victim, due to a very slight natural discolouration or flaw to the upper rim below the lid.
Two further extremely rare items of jade owned by the victim had also been sold: a cup and cover, which sold for around £127,000, and a jade bird box, which sold for £7,000.
Mr Hope said Bedfordshire Police’s fraud investigation unit established that items had been sold through accounts with Bonhams opened in the names of Des Pickersgill and his son, Gary.
The court heard Gary Pickersgill and his wife Sarah were able to buy their luxury home in Lincolnshire in March 2014.
That house was sold in September 2017 and they used the proceeds to buy a hotel in Skegness, spending £100,000 on renovations.
The jury was told that in 2018 Gary Pickersgill enlisted the help of friends Kevin Wigmore and his wife Tracy from Lincolnshire to open an account at Bonhams and, through it, three items of jade were sold at auction for a total of more than £63,000.
Investigations by the police and HMRC established that a lot of this money had then been transferred to Gary’s wife, Sarah.
Between Des, Gary and Sarah, their taxable income over this time period had been around £13,000, with Des drawing on his state pension since the first sale at Bonhams.
Enquiries established Gary had been discussing the auction of further lots with Kevin and Tracy Wigmore, who lived near his home in Skegness.
Kevin had set up an account at Bonhams and sold three items for more than £60,000.
In July of this Des Pickersgill, 83, now of Clyde Crescent, Bedford, and Gary Pickersgill, 42, of Saxby Avenue, Skegness we’re both found guilty of the theft of jade and ivory artefacts from the home of the old lady between November 2011 and May of 2018.
The pair, along with Kevin Wigmore, 47, of Sapphire Close, Orby near Skegness, were convicted of fraud by making false representations to Bonhams Auction House that they had the authority to sell the jade and ivory items on behalf of the woman
Des Pickersgill, Gary Pickersgill and Sarah Pickersgill, 40, also from Saxby Avenue, Skegness, were found guilty of converting criminal property.
Gary Pickersgill, Kevin Wigmore and his wife Tracy Wigmore were found guilty of converting criminal property by selling jade and ivory antiques to Bonhams.
During the trial, the court heard the victim and her first husband, a city banker, had built up the collection of Chinese Jade and Ivory antiques.
Following his death in 1976, the collection – for the purposes of probate – had been valued at £60,000. In the 1980s it was valued again at £160,000
In 1978 she had met another man who was a farmer and businessman while on a cruise and they eventually moved in together at the former farmhouse in Bedfordshire.
He died in 2000 and, following his death, she sold her own “unique and rare collection of books” for over £4million at Christie’s.
Her grandson told the court that while she had been in hospital recovering from a stroke, he had photographed much of her collection of Jade and Ivory because “of the way the world is and crime, and the house being empty.”
The court heard that following the burglary in 2017, all valuable property has been removed from the house and was now kept in secure storage.
Before the five were sentenced the judge was told 10 of the items stolen by the father and son had subsequently been sold at auction to buyers in the UK.
But the “vast majority” had gone to international and commercial buyers abroad and it was likely some would never be retrieved.
“sly and dastardly criminal conspiracy”
After the sentencing today (Thursday) Investigation officer Dave Brecknock, from Bedfordshire Police’s Serious Fraud Investigation Unit, said: “I have no doubt that Des and Gary Pickersgill hatched a plan to prey on an elderly and vulnerable victim, steal these precious artefacts and make themselves a small fortune.
“This was a pre-meditated, sly and dastardly criminal conspiracy, which has caused untold worry to the victim and her family, for who I am delighted we have been able to secure some justice.”
Detective Inspector James Day, from Bedfordshire Police’s Serious Fraud Investigation Unit, said: “This investigation has shown that fraud is not a victimless crime. It’s a crime that can impact us all, no matter what age or background you come from.
“It is an intrusive violation of someone’s trust. It’s important for people to remember that it is not your fault and you should never feel ashamed if you have been affected by it.
Confiscation proceedings against all five will be held in due course when any realisable assets will be seized which will include the hotel in Skegness that Gary Pickersgill and his wife bought with their ill-gotten gains.