How to identify heritage property thieves

How to identify heritage property thieves

Large pink building with walled garden


Perhaps you’re a regular visitor at heritage properties.

Maybe you work at one.

Or you live there.

One thing you’ll all have in common is a passion for historical British culture.

And you’ll agree it should be preserved and protected.

The problem is, Castles, Manors and Halls are happy hunting grounds for thieves. They’re believed to be chock full of valuable and collectable items.

And, unlike 99% of the properties in Britain, they’re open to the public.

So, anybody can walk in without being questioned.

Most of those people are like you, model citizens whose only crime is the occasional speeding ticket.

But then there are a small few who go into these heritage properties without the best intentions.

So, unless they walk around in a black and white striped uniform, how can you identify them?


Who are the different types of thieves?

There are five different types of thieves of varying professionalism.

Some are far easier to spot, but that’s not always a good thing.



This type of thief is not exclusive to heritage properties. They’re seen in shops, markets, and auctions across the world.

Frankly, they’ve gone to look around a historic building for the same reason you have. Intrigue and culture.

They may be alone, with their partner or their family.

But whilst they’re staring at a set of gold pocket watches a voice inside their head says:

Take one, nobody’ll know’

They have no intention of selling it or doing anything with it.

And they all say the same thing when they’re caught:

“I’ve never done anything like this before”



These criminals come in pairs, minimum, pretending not to know each other.

They’ll have visited at some point previously to see if there’s anything of value.

The distraction thief will know if there’s any security and the safest place to make their move.

One of the team will distract the guide with a question about a particular artifact. And whilst the guide’s back is turned their partner will slip something off a table and into their pocket.

They’ll stick to smaller objects that aren’t easy to spot when they’re missing and can be easily concealed.


Local amateurs

Far from a slick operation.

They’ve come from the surrounding area in the hope of quick payday.

They haven’t done any reconnaissance and will be, as the name suggests, very amateur.

These guys are just as likely to run off with a Spode plate as a priceless vase.

They’ve got no interest in the heritage whilst looking nervous and jumpy.


Professional ‘Lone Wolves’

They like to work alone.

It’s quicker, quieter and there’s less that can go wrong.

They’ll have done their research and visited at least once to check out security.

On a previous visit, they won’t have come to see if you’ve got anything worth stealing, they already know that.

They’ve come to see the best way in, how to get to your valuables and how to get out.



Probably the most terrifying thieves and popular in Southern England

Working as a team they don’t care what sort of security you have. They don’t care if you’re at home. They don’t care if the alarms start blaring.

They’ll smash into a property, take what they want, and be out again in 90 seconds.

You won’t need any help identifying them, you’ll know when they’re there.

Sir Thomas Ingilby, Editor of the Stately Homes Hotline, said: “These raids are carried out clinically and with total disregard for the heritage property that is being attacked”


How to catch a criminal

Now, we’re not suggesting you turn into Clint Eastwood and take them down to the local sheriff.

That could put you in harm’s way which is something we don’t want.

The key is prevention.

There are small things you can do that’ll make life harder for any criminal.


Keep an eye out

The earlier you spot potential criminal activity the easier it will be to prevent.

The first opportunity to put a stop to theft is during the initial visit. When they’re looking for your security and other things that might be valuable.

At least four of the criminal types will carry out an initial visit.

Your best defence is vigilance.

You know what people who visit historic properties look like. And how they behave.

Somebody might zoom through the first rooms and then spend longer in another. That’s odd.

Are they taking photos of unusual things such as windows and doors? Why are they interested in that?

Do they linger around places where you’ve installed alarms? There’s nothing of note in that area…

You might see them check doors that aren’t open to the public. Why are they trying to go off-route?

There are key members of staff at different points of the visit. Inform them what to look out for and trust their instinct.


Communication is Key

Just like in all walks of life. If you talk to your team members, everything’s going to run more smoothly.

If you’ve noticed some suspicious behaviour pass it on to the rest of the team. They’ll then know what and who to look out for.

Your surveillance network extends much further than members of staff.

You can encourage neighbours to report suspicious behaviour. Unusually parked cars or vehicles that visit at unsocial hours are a giveaway.

A great way to instantly communicate with your team is through a WhatsApp group.

They’re a great way of bringing your team together and a message sent to this group will let everyone know what’s going on instantly.

You’d rather get false reports rather than miss an opportunity to spot hostile behaviour.


Doubt is a powerful weapon

Thieves want to remain unnoticed. The very last thing they want is to be spoken to.

If you or your team has spotted someone suspicious. Go and talk to them.

Ask harmless questions about their interest in heritage or where they’ve come from.

Subtly make it obvious that you’ll remember them. They don’t want attention and they certainly don’t want to be recognised.

After you’ve spoken to them, they’ll have no interest in sticking around.

Make sure you take note of their car.

An activity like this is far-reaching. And will go a long way to stopping all 5 types of heritage criminals.

They’ll return home knowing that your team’s wise to their interest and that’ll cast doubt on whether stealing from your property is worth the risk.


Don’t get distracted

Distraction theft is highly popular in heritage properties.

Asking questions when you’re at a historic property isn’t uncommon. But how you answer the question can make all the difference.

So, instead of turning to face the item in question. Position yourself so you can see the rest of the room.

The person waiting to lift something from a table won’t attempt anything if they think they’ll be noticed.

Alternatively, use your WhatsApp group to let your team know something suspicious is happening and they can join the group as a 2nd pair of eyes.


Take note

Jotting down notes of suspicious goings-on is hugely important.

That includes number plates, times, dates, and personal descriptions.

This will help you remember who’s been in and out and recognise patterns.

Also, when something happens you can pass the details to the police.




It’s important to first understand where threats to your property come from.

The truth is, there’s no standard demographic for historic house thieves.

There are stories of elderly couples using distraction techniques to mothers of three lifting a candlestick on a whim.

This doesn’t mean everyone’s a suspect, we don’t want to turn you into a cynic, but everyone is capable of making a bad decision.

Get your team attuned to unusual behaviour and into the habit of reporting it to your new WhatsApp group.

If you want to improve your property’s physical security on a budget read this article.

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  • Linda Hall says...

    As the author of ‘Period House Fixtures and Fittings 1300-1900’ I’m afraid that photographing windows and doors is EXACTLY what I do! I am always interested in hinges, latches, window catches, panelling, staircase details, fireplaces – any old fittings from the largest to the smallest. And as a member of the Regional Furniture Society I am equally interested in old furniture. There are plenty of other people like me, people who are interested in the architecture rather than the portraits, and who would prefer not to be regarded with grave suspicion every time we look at a doorframe rather than Aunt Agatha’s diary!

    On November 28, 2022

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