Friday, June 11, 2010

Outside the statute of limitations, but still . . .

I'm in something of a moral quandary about this report in the Daily Mail.

A silver snuff box stolen by a sailor from Lord Admiral Nelson's cabin as he lay dying on the deck of HMS Victory is to be sold at auction.

The 8cm horn-shaped snuff 'mull' was taken from Horatio's private quarters by a coxswain called 'Sims' on October 21, 1805.

Lord Nelson ... was shot by a French sniper during the Battle of Trafalgar.

But while he lay dying in the arms of his men, Sims - a sailor on the famous ship - walked into his private quarters.

He helped himself to several of Nelson private things including a snuff box and later gave it to his uncle, another sailor also called Sims.

On his death bed the uncle bequeathed it to another sailor who worked at Brighton College where he gave it to the principal, Dr John Griffith.

A letter, written by Dr Griffith on May 5, 1891, says the box was taken from Nelson's private quarters on HMS Victory.

It reads: 'Sims who was coxswain aboard the Victory on 21st of October 1805 obtained for himself from Nelson's cabin, as was then the habit some of the admiral's things & among them this horn silver mounted snuff box.

'Coxswain Sims gave it to his Uncle Sims commander of the revenue cutter on guard between Weymouth & New Haven.

'This Sims on his death bed sent for a comande (sic) of his on board the revenue cutter & gave him Nelson's snuff box. he leaving the service became porter of Brighton College while I was principal.

'After his death his widow gave me this memento of himself & of Lord Nelson, they having no children, as she gave her husband's medal to my son Arthur for his boy.

'John Griffith May 5, 1891 Hasrock Sussex'.

The mounted snuff box has been passed down through a family and will now to be sold at Bearnes auctioneers in Exeter, Devon.

It has minimum price of £1,600 but it is expected to fetch considerably more and attract international interest during the sale on June 16.

Brian Goodison-Blanks, maritime specialist at Bearnes, said records showed seaman Sims was onboard HMS Victory at the time and that Dr Griffith was principal of Brighton College.

He said: 'Nelson is probably the most famous admiral of the Royal Navy. In this case the documentary evidence does corroborate it being Nelson's snuff box.

'It seems Sims stole into Nelson's chamber on the day he died, probably as attention was turned to him as he lay dying, and helped himself to something.

'If he had been caught he would have been in deep trouble and probably executed for treason.'

There's more at the link.

OK, the original thief stole it more than two centuries ago, so the statute of limitations has more than run out: but still . . . should stolen property ever be sold like this? Should the descendants or heirs of thieves be able to profit from the theft? Shouldn't the stolen property be seized and returned to Admiral Nelson's descendants, or at least placed in a suitable museum?

What say you, readers?



Anonymous said...


I suspect a LOT of property has been stolen at one time or another, historically speaking. 'Returning it to rightful heirs' could restructure nations and begin wars.

How would you like to find the home you just bought is built on land stolen in a land grab, and is being taken from you and given to the original owners great/great/great grandson?

Chris said...

While I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the land example by Anonymous, the case of the stolen snuff box seems quite different and clear-cut. The land example is somewhat improbable, given title searches in today's environment. The snuff box was *admittedly* stolen, the chain of (illegal) custody is undisputed (although possibly to enhance the auction value), and there seems to be no question as to its authenticity. However, my question would be, are there heirs to Nelson existing that wish to claim the item? If not, sell away. To hell with a government's claim to private property, regardless of its normal way of gaining money to squander.

Anonymous said...

Would the sentiment be different if you were to discover that the snuff box was acquired by Nelson as "a spoil of war"?