When the artist Maurizio Cattelan heard that his solid-gold toilet, valued by some at nearly $6 million, had been ripped from the floor and stolen from the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, he reacted much the same as you would if your $6 million solid-gold toilet had been ripped from the floor and stolen from the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill: with a sort of stunned whimsy.
“I thought it was a prank and it took me a while, after a few checks, to come to the conclusion that it was true and it wasn’t a surreal movie where instead of the jewels of the crown, the thieves went away with a bloody toilet,” Cattelan said in a statement, adding, “I always liked heist movies and finally I’m in one of them. Are the thieves of this work the real artists?”
“Instead of the jewels of the crown, the thieves went away with a bloody toilet.”
“Artist” might be too strong a word, but the theft of the golden toilet has nonetheless enraptured the British public. As a story, it manages to single-handedly contain every possible thing that fascinates us: money, class, history, scandal, potty humor, and wild potential for mediocre wordplay. People may very well have injured themselves trying to resist saying that the police have nothing to go on. I know I certainly came close.
To be clear—because God knows it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a lord whose golden toilet has gone missing—the lavatory did not belong to Blenheim Palace. At no point, as far as anyone is aware, did Winston Churchill ever lower his little bottom onto an 18-karat crapper.
Edward Spencer-Churchill, founder of the Blenheim Art Foundation, clarified his precise level of poshness in May. “Despite being born with a silver spoon in my mouth I have never had a s.h.i.t. on a golden toilet,” he told the press.
Instead, the toilet was a satirical artwork (entitled America) that had been on loan from the Guggenheim. Cattelan claims the toilet—crafted by a Florence foundry—was made of 227 pounds of gold; the toilet made headlines last year when it was offered to Donald Trump instead of the Van Gogh landscape he had planned to hang in the White House. Plumbed in the room opposite the one where Sir Winston was born, visitors to the palace were each granted three minutes alone to do what they wished with the toilet, as part of Cattelan’s “Victory Is Not an Option” exhibition.
“Despite being born with a silver spoon in my mouth I have never had a s.h.i.t. on a golden toilet.”
And then two days after it was opened to the public, in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, it was gone. Police believe that a gang mounted a smash-and-grab raid, breaking down a metal gate with a four-by-four, destroying several windows, ripping the toilet from the floor, and making off with it before security could respond.
The fate of America, unfortunately, does not look good. A solid-gold toilet is a hard thing to hide, and the worry is that it has already been melted down for its raw materials, which some believe could be worth around $4 million. After all, if the thieves were art-lovers, they would have perhaps stopped to make off with one of Cattelan’s other exhibits, like the full-size taxidermic horse suspended from the ceiling, or the 200 stuffed birds, or the Pinocchio that had been drowned in a fountain, or the perfect shed-size replica of the Sistine Chapel.
The likelihood is that it has already been melted down for its raw materials, which may be worth around $4 million.
In fact, if the crooks had any knowledge of contemporary art whatsoever, they would have surely opted for Him, a wax sculpture of a little boy with Adolf Hitler’s face that Cattelan created in 2001. Not only is it vastly more valuable than the toilet—it sold at Christie’s in 2016 for around $17 million—but it’s also much simpler to steal. Realistically, you could quite easily scamper from Blenheim Palace with a little Hitler under your arm. You might even be able to stuff it up your sweater if you planned well enough ahead. Who knows?
What’s undeniable is that this is a huge embarrassment for the Blenheim Palace security team. Perhaps the crooks were egged on by Spencer-Churchill’s nonchalance when it came to his expensive loo. “A potential thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate,” he told The Sunday Times last month. “So no, I don’t plan on guarding it.”
Worryingly, a spate of these high-end break-ins have been taking place across the English countryside. Just days before the toilet theft, a gang in a four-wheel drive burgled Sudeley Castle, 38 miles away in the Cotswolds near Gloucestershire, smashing a display case with a sledgehammer and making off with various valuable artifacts. And the Night Watcher, an armed burglar who has stolen $12 million of goods over the last 13 years by spending weeks hiding on the grounds of big homes before tying up the owners, is still thought to be at large.
But good news might be on the horizon. Two men, a 66-year-old and a 36-year-old, have been arrested in connection with the crime and remain under investigation. So at least the police do finally have something to go on. I am so sorry.
Stuart Heritage is an Editor at Large for Air Mail living in Kent, U.K.