It was an audacious and highly professional heist. At 2am on a June night in 2003, five men wearing balaclavas and blue boilersuits smashed their way through a window at Waddesdon Manor, the extravagant French-style chateau built in Buckinghamshire by the Rothschild banking dynasty.
Despite high security, they grabbed more than 100 gold boxes and other precious objects worth several million pounds – and four minutes later they were gone. Almost all disappeared without trace.
But 19 years after the robbery, one of the tiny gold boxes has been recovered and returned to Waddesdon. On Wednesday, it will go on display in the Rothschild Treasury, a gallery that houses more than 300 objects made from rare and precious materials
The French bonbonnière – a small ornamental box often kept in a pocket or boudoir and used for sweets – dates from 1775-81 and was made in Paris. It is circular, with gold piqué stars on a dark blue ground and a tortoiseshell interior. On its lid is a miniature of a woman holding a basket of roses.
It came up for sale at a UK regional auction house last August. The auctioneers ran it through the Art Loss Register (ALR), a private database of stolen, looted and disputed art and artefacts. Staff at the ALR identified it as one of the items stolen in the Waddesdon raid.
Lucy O’Meara, an expert on country house thefts and a recovery specialist at the ALR, said it was “an honour to assist in returning a small part of the house’s cultural history to its rightful place”. She hoped the remaining boxes “will be reunited with the collection very soon”.
The ALR contacted Thames Valley police, which investigated the Waddesdon heist. At the time, police believed the items were stolen to order, describing the robbery as a “professional raid by people who knew what they wanted”.
The Waddesdon collection of 18th-century miniature gold boxes was considered one of the world’s rarest, and Lord Rothschild offered a reward of £50,000 for its return.
Pippa Shirley, the director of collections, historic properties and landscapes at Waddesdon, said: “The 2003 theft was deeply traumatic for everyone at Waddesdon – I remember it vividly – and this feels such a positive outcome and gives us hope that the other boxes may yet come back to us.”
Waddesdon, near Aylesbury, was built in the late 19th century by Ferdinand de Rothschild as a place to host weekend house parties. The house was designed to showcase his exceptional collection of English portraits, French 18th-century furniture, Sèvres porcelain, and other decorative arts.
Owned by the National Trust since 1957, Waddesdon has been used as a venue for visiting heads of state including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and France’s François Mitterrand.