Bulmers Cider family art theft sparks insurance fraud allegations

An art detective has criticised a criminal court in Bristol for focussing on “conspiracy theories” surrounding around a multi-million pound art heist that took place at the Bulmer Mansion in Bruton, Somerset.

The home of the Bulmers cider family was burgled in March 2009 while Esmond and Susie Bulmer were holidaying in Barbados. Eleven men are on trial at Bristol Crown Court for the theft of fifteen paintings and antique jewellery with a total estimated value of £2.5 million. Three men have been charged with burglary and the rest with handling stolen goods, conspiracy to defraud and perverting the course of justice.

Former detective chief inspector, Charles Hill, told the court that it was wrong to concentrate on the allegation of insurance fraud connected with the case. Instead, he argued the focus should be on the assault of the Bulmer’s housesitter, Deborah Barnjum. Hooded and tied to a banister in the house when it was invaded by balaclava-clad burglars, Barnjum was only discovered 18 hours after the thieves drove away in Esmond’s Mercedes.

A former member of the Metropolitan Police and a freelance art recovery specialist, Hill is credited with recovering Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ when it was stolen in 1994. He was contacted by Esmond to help with recovering the stolen goods, which include a painting by George Frederic Watts, after police had failed to find them.

Months after an advert offering £50,000 for the safe return of the stolen paintings was placed in the Antiques Trade Gazette, Hill was contacted by a man named Jonathan Rees. He claimed to know former SAS members who could help track down the works and began working with Hill on the art recovery case.

Following negotiations with Rees, the reward for the recovery of the works was increased to £175,000 and the paintings were returned to a secure location in London. Rees was later arrested by Avon and Somerset Police and is one of the men now standing trial for insurance fraud.

Hill told the court that the charges against Reese were “both outrageous and wrong” and there was “a good likelihood he has done nothing wrong”. He slammed senior Avon and Somerset Police as “incompetent” and suggested the trial was “their attempt to make amends”.

The trial continues.

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