Time was, when football players did not earn quite the salary they do today, and even cup matches had less formal aftermaths than they do today.

Often, after a cup win, the television cameras would be invited to a very modest manager’s home to witness the prized holy grail of club football, the European Cup, sitting on the table while the family took their evening meal.

Brian Clough summed up this singular attitude to a piece of silverware both valuable and legendary, after he took Nottingham Forest all the way and bagged the 1980 European Cup.

The albeit temporary curator of one of a continent’s most prized possessions told newspaper journalists: “I came home, plonked the cup on top of the telly, and sent our Nigel out for a chinese [takeaway].”

Sometimes, national treasures find themselves in unlikely hands. At these times they can have some bizarre adventures.

Enter Mr John Nevin: a man whose sorry tale was kept silent for decades, until The Independent made a few enquiries under the Freedom of Information Act in 2009.

Mr Nevin was a back room assistant with the Victoria and Albert museum for 20 years.

After the war, national treasures were moved back into the museum. And Mr Nevin began, quite simply, to take his work home with him.

Over the following nine years, he managed to take 2,068 items home to his three-bedroom council house in Chiswick.

What he did with them beggars belief.

He fashioned a length of rare cloth into bathroom curtains. His wife used a rare Italian nineteenth century leather and tortoiseshell bag for her shopping. He hid a Spanish engraved flintlock blunderbuss under the floorboards and a collection of watches in his toilet cistern.

It was not until a stocktake in 1953 that V&A staff noticed a long list of missing items had been handled by Mr Nevin, and Mr Nevin alone.

Police raided his house and found rare musical instruments under the floor,  jade figures in a vacuum dust bag, a gilt figure of a knight behind the water tank and a silver inkpot in the chimney.

Mr Nevin attempted ineptly to take his own life when his magpie instincts had been discovered: he drank half a bottle of cough mixture.

It did not have the desired effect. Three years in prison followed. When he got out, he returned to the scene of his crime to repatriate 29 spoons and other sundry valuables. Some items have never been traced.  Mr Nevin told the court:  “I couldn’t help myself: I was attracted by the beauty.”

National treasures can be very beautiful. Sometime an object, fashioned by hand untold ages ago with a perception of beauty which belonged to its time: it is almost like a time capsule. Gaze at it, and it solves mysteries, or evokes what writing never could: the zeitgeist of an age far gone by.

Almost 100 years ago, such a treasure was unearthed. A nonpareil: one of its kind. A gleaming jewel which so epitomised the thoughts of its owners that it stunned all who heard of it. It was called the Finglesham Buckle.

It was on the Northbourne Estate, between Dover and Deal, that a quarry worker in 1929 was working when they noticed something which wasn’t quite right. Workers had often unearthed bones in the past and must have destroyed graves without even realising it. But the worker alerted the Farmer and the Farmer contacted the landowner and before you could say treasure trove, Lord Northbourne was on the spot, asking advice from Mr Reginald Smith of the British Museum.

It was an Anglo Saxon Cemetery, with graves filled with treasures not just from this land but from far away: brooches and necklaces, beads and knives from Germany and Belgium.

And none more breathtaking than an intricate piece of art history: The Finglesham Buckle. The buckle was found in grave D3: a warrior’s last resting place. It would have been worn to show his worth in a battle some time in the late sixth century. And it is a seminal piece of art history.

The other day I watched a BBC television programme fronted by an art historian called Dr Nina Ramirez. In The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons she explained key treasures from the period.

She visited The British Museum for many of the pieces: but the buckle has a different home.

She travelled back to Kent, to the Northbourne estate. Because in the thirties, when this treasure was excavated, the laws permitted finders to keep.

The late Lord Northbourne donated about half of the sumptuous treasure to museums. But the other half, including this priceless artefact, he kept.

Now his son runs the estate and permitted Dr Ramirez to view and film the buckle. It was packed in a small case with a label tied to it. Its packing did not trumpet its significance.

As the good Doctor held it she became quite breathless, overcome by the gravity of the tiny golden object she held. Her face shone. This, she told the millions of viewers, is a national treasure.

And then she took her leave and left it there, on an estate near the Kent Coast, near the lonely quarry that spawned it.

I wonder if she will ever see it again.

If an object is overwhelmingly significant: this is no guarantee that it  will be feted in the halls of the great institutions.

The European Cup found an incongruous, if temporary, home on Brian Clough’s telly. A priceless tapestry met its fate as a pair of bathroom curtains.

While in this country our feet have a right to roam, we do not have a right to gaze upon all national treasures, to feast on the history which made us who we are.

We must trust the private collectors.

As WB Yeats said it: “Tread softly, for you tread on our dreams.”


13 thoughts on “Curator

  1. Think of all those treasures through time that weren’t saved….millions of them!

    Puts a new light on Monty Pythons sketch

    “One day all of this will be yours….”

    1. I think you’re right, Sidey. You remind me of Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris – do you know it? -think the Americans call it Mrs Harris goes to Paris. A charlady saves up for a couture Dior dress and travels to Paris to buy it and have it made. Finally she lends it to a young acquaintance who ruins it: but she realises that the disaster is all part of the story of this fascinating dress.

      Not sure I’d be quite as forgiving.

  2. How interesting, Kate, to hear of all these treasures, found years upon years later, and what their fate becomes. Perhaps we are not supposed to put them all away in museums (though, thank goodness, many of them are).

    There is one sports award here in North American, shared among the US and Canadians, that I love to hear about. The Stanley Cup. Our Chicago Blackhawks won it this year. Chicago teams are notorious for ALMOST making it. “Next year” is a motto for all of our teams if there ever was one. This year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the holy trophy of professional ice hockey. Yea! The fun thing about the Stanley Cup is that no one gets to keep it. The players, managers, etc. of the winning team get to take turns having it for a day and it travels to local bars and family rooms and gyms where fans drink out of it (yuk) and kiss it, display it and revere it. Today it was at the White House. Next year, the new winners get the cup and off it goes.

  3. OMG, Kate. The tears are streaming down my face:

    Mr Nevin attempted ineptly to take his own life when his magpie instincts had been discovered: he drank half a bottle of cough mixture.

    How could someone who “masterminded” such an amazing art heist be, at the same time, so “feeble minded”? It boggles the mind.

    Thanks for the laugh.

    BFF had to rush to my side and share the mirth. Not the first time. My laughter is so lyrical that ALL within hearing distance must, of necessity, join in. 😀

    Here’s to tea parties on the ceiling . . . and silver inkpots in the chimney.

  4. Your posts are always so interesting and enlightening, Kate. This is fascinating stuff. I can’t believe the gall of Mr Nevin and his wife – oh my goodness, bathroom curtains? What did his friends think? And for all of that he got three years?
    Lovely, lovely post
    Sunshine xx

    1. Thanks Sunshine! Life must have been very hard indeed for them – keeping this stuff secret would have been a huge burden. His wife said when they were arrested that it was a huge relief to be found out. It must have become so very out of control.

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