Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Auckland Museum coin theft of 1895

"The Auckland Museum and Institute on the corner of Princes Street and Eden Crescent, Auckland Central,"  
reference 4 -RIC99, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

“Public institutions,” according to the Auckland Star in 1895, “appear to be so seldom made the subject of robberies and burglaries, at any rate in this colony, that they are not uncommonly looked upon as enjoying an immunity in that respect as any of us.” This was written, however, at the head of a report on a heist at the Auckland Museum, then located in Princes Street.

On the night of 25-26 March 1895, Robert (aka George) Levett (aka Lovett) , aged “considerably over 50 years,” broke into the museum and stole a coin collection valued at £125. A crack in the window already there was the way in; Levitt later denied breaking the window to flip the catch, but as it was doubted that someone else conveniently left an arm-sized hole there, he was the one who was blamed.

The coins were displayed in two glass cases on the upper floor. Levett easily cracked the cases open, and scooped up the entire contents, including the cloth lining of one of the case. The Auckland Star report presumed that the cloth was to serve as a bag for the loot.
The collection was one of the most valuable in New Zealand. It contained a large number of very early English and Roman coins, such as are very rarely seen in most collections, and was a most valuable collection, as far as the Museum was concerned as well as from a coin-collector's point of view.

The following day, it all came unstuck for the thief.

Last night, George Levett was arrested on a charge of being concerned in the robbery at the Museum. He attempted to change one of the old coins— a half crown of the period of George II — in a hotel. The barmaid noticed the coin, and telephoned for the police. When the man was searched, eight coins were found on him answering to the description of the missing coins. The police have ascertained that some coins were disposed of on Tuesday morning to jewellers and others before the robbery was publicly known. The accused is well known to the police as an old offender … Chief Detective Grace has recovered some more coins of the Museum robbery at the pawnbrokers establishments. Levett states that he bought them from another man.

Wanganui Herald 29 March 1895

Levett was indicted before the Supreme Court on 3 June 1895. In the testimony, it was reported that he had lived a “long time” in Auckland, but had travelled to Sydney in 1891, where he served two sentences totalling three years. Robert Benjamin Levett appears to have been a marble mason working in Auckland in the early 1880s. In 1883, he prepared a marble mantelpiece of the Imperial Hotel. Then, in 1887, things seemed to have come adrift in his life. In February that year, he was before the Police Court charged with intent to defraud. That case was later dismissed, but then in May 1887 he was charged with assaulting his wife, Catherine. In November he was charged with stealing a shovel from T & S Morrin, but that charge was also dismissed. In January 1890 he broke into a jewellers’ and stole five silver watches, one case of carving knives, one gold necklet and locket, one double-barrelled gun, two saloon guns and six gold brooches, all up valued at £20 17s. For that, Levett was sentenced to nine month’s hard labour. After that – he crossed the Tasman.

He’d only just returned to Auckland in early March in 1895, three weeks before he robbed the museum. For the museum heist, he was sentenced to nine months hard labour.

In June 1896, Levett was at it again – this time sentenced to three months’ hard labour for stealing an overcoat valued at 30s. A theft (with an accomplice) of six pairs of boots followed in October that year, then another robbery involving trousers and serge coats in 1898.

In May 1898, a bit of a change of pace for the old lag.

At the Police Court this morning, an elderly prisoner named Robert Levett, at present “doing" two years in Mount Eden Gaol, was charged with pretending illness. He pleaded not guilty. Chief Gaoler Reston said that the prisoner had begun the day after he entered gaol last March. The doctor could see nothing the matter with the man. He had been under treatment at the infirmary. Dr. Philson, the gaol surgeon, said that Levett had complained of his head and back, and had declared that he was unable to work. Witness would not say that there was nothing the matter, but he could not find anything wrong with the man, after examining him. "There were no symptoms,” said the doctor.
"Nothing wrong," exclaimed the prisoner, "is it likely a man who has nothing wrong with him would go for thirty-three days on three pounds of bread?" The question remaining unanswered, he went one better: "For fourteen days," he declared, “I never broke my fast."
The surgeon's orderly stated that the prisoner used to change the expression of his face when he found he was being watched, and relax when he was unaware of the survey. In the same way he could scarcely speak when questioned, but if he thought none of the officials were about he talked easily enough.
"Any questions?" said the magistrate to the prisoner. The latter declined to cross-examine, and raised a laugh by declaring that "them two have dished it all up together."
A prisoner named Dawber mentioned that Levett had told him several times that he did not intend to work, and another witness deposed to a remark the accused had made while in gaol, that "a man must be a blanky fool to work here." Levett had told him that he intended "to sleep his time out." The accused never starved himself at all.
Levett elected to give evidence, and began in this fashion: "Gentlemen of the Court, I trust you will listen to what I am going to say."
"Address yourself to me," said the Magistrate.
“Sir," replied the old man in the dock, “I am addressing the gentlemen of the Court,” and he went on to tell how he had laid in his cell and "felt bad", been examined by the doctor, and fasted for 14 days, and other things more or less irrelevant.
The Magistrate said he was satisfied that the accused was guilty of malingering, and sentenced him to be kept in close confinement for a week, without irons. "And that's getting justice," sneered the old fellow, as he was removed.
Auckland Star 20 May 1898


  1. What a timely posting in light of the most recent medals theft from the Army Museum!

  2. This was something I've had sitting in my "pending" file for about a year now. The other day I came upon it again, added stuff from the Auckland Star we now have access to -- and there you have it! Yes, I thought the timing turned out well, too. Cheers, Phil!