Two British brothers jailed for stealing Ming Dynasty artefacts

Two British brothers have been jailed for stealing Ming Dynasty artefacts worth around £3 million from a Swiss museum, police said.

Louis and Stewart Ahearne, from Greenwich, south London, pleaded guilty to stealing two Chinese Ming Dynasty vases and a cup from the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Arts in Geneva on the night of June 1 2019.

On Tuesday, the brothers were each sentenced to three years and six months in prison at a court in Geneva, the Metropolitan Police said.

Swiss authorities said the men were wearing masks and gloves when they broke into the museum by smashing a pane on the front door before shattering a display case and leaving with the items, believed to be from the 15th century and valued at £2,870,000.

Louis and Stewart Ahearne court case
Louis Ahearne (Met Police)

Detective Chief Inspector Matt Webb, who led the investigation, said: “The Ahearne brothers meticulously planned this burglary, carrying out careful reconnaissance to ensure they could make a clean getaway and bring the items back to the UK.

“They naively believed that having fled the country they had escaped punishment, but they did not bank on the fact we would work so closely with our Swiss counterparts to identify those involved.

“Organised crime often crosses international boundaries and as this result shows, we will use all of the powers at our disposal to identify and arrest those involved in committing these types of offences.”

Louis and Stewart Ahearne court case
Stewart Ahearne (Met Police)

DNA from the scene matched Stewart Ahearne, 45, who was living in south-east London, when shared by officers in Switzerland on the international database.

They also identified the registration plates on a car leaving the scene and discovered it had been hired days before the burglary.

Inquiries with the hire car company revealed Stewart collected it at the airport, and it was then used to drive the stolen goods back into the UK.

CCTV images implicated Louis, 35.

The first joint investigation team of its kind between the UK and Switzerland law enforcement was set up to easily share information, the Metropolitan Police said.

The force set up an undercover sting, posing as art buyers and arranging to meet the gang at a central London hotel.

Louis and Stewart Ahearne court case
A cup stolen by Louis and Stewart Ahearne (Met Police)

Stewart and his co-conspirator Mbaki Nhkwa handed the vase to the undercover officers in exchange for £450,000, and were promptly arrested.

The Ahearnes were extradited to Switzerland and pleaded guilty there on January 15.

Their sentences will be served in Switzerland and once released they will be banned from entering the country for five years.

They were also ordered to each pay 52,261 Swiss Francs.

Nkhkwa, David Lamming and Kaine Wright, were all previously sentenced for possession of criminal property for their role in the attempted sale of the vase in London.

A reward of up to £10,000 is on offer for information leading to the recovery of the ‘doucai style’ Ming Dynasty wine cup, which remains missing, and features chickens on its side.

Anyone with knowledge of its whereabouts is asked to call police on 101 and reference Operation Funsea, or call Crimestoppers.