Is art theft the solution to the funding crisis?

Few people consider teachers as likely thieves. But, says Stephen Petty, a heist could do wonders for the school budget

Stephen Petty

Could stealing art solve the school funding crisis?

Given that I live near Blenheim Palace, it was perhaps inevitable that some of my more juvenile friends would start pointing the finger at me for the recent disappearance of that £4.8 million gold toilet

I have naturally denied any involvement. On the night in question, I was not out robbing. I was at home marking. If I left the table at all, it was simply to make brief use of our much-admired white ceramic silent-flusher. 

That said, the gold-toilet episode has made me wonder whether an art heist might be the best option for each financially dumped-upon school. One secret foray a year could solve everything.

Mild-mannered exterior

Are teachers capable of such a deed? Of course we are.

We already have some form here. One history teacher in St Petersburg quietly made off with more than £2.5 million's worth of artefacts on a series of visits to the city's Hermitage museum. Years passed before anyone noticed. 

Similarly, there has been strong speculation in the US media that a “mild-mannered” teacher and his wife may have been behind the 30-year disappearance from a Tuscon museum of a $100 million (£80 million) masterpiece. In 2017, after they had died and their house had been sold, the painting was discovered on the wall behind their bedroom door. A photograph suggests that they were visiting the city at the relevant time.

Few people consider teachers as likely thieves. That’s the beauty of it. The outside world has no idea what we're really like. They don't know just how many of us turn light-fingered within days of joining the profession. Where would we be without the occasional discreet acquisition of someone else's board pen, stapler or milk? After all, others probably made off with our own supplies. We learn to look after ourselves, to duck and to dive. Dog eat dog and all that. 

Oddball personalities

Between us, we also have all the skills and slightly oddball personalities needed. Just imagine you are fictional heist-planners Danny or Debbie Ocean, selecting a team from your current staff. It doesn't take too long to pencil in a crack team, does it?

Personally I would ask a couple of seemingly mild-mannered characters from humanities to drift amiably into the room of the targeted exhibit on a quiet afternoon, possibly in wigs, beards, monocles and the like.

One of them would engage the room attendant in cultured conversation, while the other would swoop upon the targeted exhibit, and lob it out out of the window.

Standing inconspicuously in a flowerbed beneath the window, some robust unit from the PE department would be ready and waiting. He or she would either catch the falling work of art or selflessly use their body to soften the fall and prevent any damage. 

The stolen goods would then be passed to a relay of variously accomplished runners on the staff, all lined up along a preplanned escape route from the premises.

Smoke and mirrors

In some chosen spot outside, the headteacher would be waiting at the helm of the school minibus. The item would be placed under a pile of unwashed sports kits and driven off to school. This vehicle would be unlikely to be apprehended or searched.

Some senior figure in the art department would then check the item for authenticity, before handing it over to the school finance team, who would set up an untraceable sale or ransom. Another million or three for the budget. Job done. 

A few teachers may feel a little uneasy about signing up to this novel addition to the school development plan. But it would all be for the greater good.

Compared with the government's own smoke-and-mirrors heist of school budgets (to the sound of "record levels of spending"), and compared with the huge salaries brazenly swept away from school funds by certain academy executives, the stealing of the odd masterpiece on behalf of children's education almost begins to sound quite ethical.

For this, sadly, is where we are now. The moral compass in education seems to have been stolen and sold off some time ago. At what price, I wonder?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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