A famous piece of local art, which had been stolen 16 years ago, has been discovered and returned to Ealing Council.
The distinctive Wally Bird statue, worth £30,000, was part of a collection of valuable Martinware pottery taken in two separate heists.
This particular Wally Bird, created in 1894, was among the items stolen by professional art thieves from Pitzhanger Manor House and Southall Library during a spate of burglaries between 2005 and 2007.
It is the third of the stolen items to have been recovered since the thefts – a Wally Bird and a jug were returned to their rightful homes in 2020 and 2021.
The magic of Martinware
The 3 Martin brothers worked as potters in a workshop by the canal in Southall, creating hand designed works in clay which were sold in their London shop by a fourth brother. The Wally Birds were hollow pot birds designed to store tobacco.
What makes them special is the quirky nature of these owl-like birds with their large beaks. You can read more in our local history article on the Martin brothers.
They were named Wally Birds after the middle name of the senior brother, Robert Wallace Martin. They are collectable items and can be found in museums and art galleries throughout Britain and elsewhere, as well as in private collections.
How the art was recovered
The stolen Wally Bird was spotted in an auction catalogue by researcher Nigel Wilson, who contacted Dr Jonathan Oates, the archivist for Ealing Council.
Dr Oates then reached out to Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and expert in tracing stolen works of art, who negotiated the unconditional return of the piece, providing his services to the council free of charge.
Despite the missing pottery now being recovered, the insurance company Zurich has chosen to waive a requirement for the insurance settlement to be repaid – effectively gifting the Wally Bird to the council.
Councillor Poly Knewstub, the council’s cabinet member for thriving communities, said: “We are delighted that this Wally Bird statue has been returned to the borough nearly two decades after it was stolen.
“We would like to extend our gratitude to the insurer Zurich Municipal, which generously waived a requirement for the council to repay the insurance settlement, and to Nigel Wilson and Christopher Marinello who helped track down the stolen object and helped us get it back. The 4 brothers who created Martinware pottery are a cherished part of the borough’s cultural history.”
The Wally Bird is now back on display in the Martinware room in Southall Library.
A project to promote and celebrate the council’s extensive collection of Martinware ceramics, including digitising the collection, is planned in 2024.