A Ming vase, an ambitious heist and two bungling brothers who left a trail of clues in their wake

Ahearne brothers
Ahearne brothers

On the night of June 1 2019, there was an unusual disturbance at a museum in Geneva. Wearing ski masks and gloves, two brothers from south-east London, along with a third man, broke into the Baur Foundation at the Museum of Far Eastern Art by smashing a pane on the front door.

Once inside, they shattered a display case and helped themselves to Ming Dynasty artefacts worth around £3 million.

The heist was meticulously planned, said Detective Chief Inspector Matt Webb, the Metropolitan Police officer leading the investigation with the Swiss police.

Stewart and Louis Ahearne had carried out “careful reconnaissance” to ensure they could make a clean getaway with the stolen goods – two bowls and a vase from the 14th century. The whole operation was over in the blink of an eye.

Only, in the event, their getaway was not quite as clean as they’d hoped it would be – for all their “meticulous planning”, the duo ended up making some rookie errors. DNA at the scene was matched with 45-year-old Stewart.

Registration plates on a car leaving the scene matched a Renault Captur hired several days earlier at Geneva Airport in Stewart’s name and collected by him. His 35-year-old brother Louis was no luckier: CCTV images linked him to the crime.

After the raid, the gang attempted to sell the items. They took one of the bowls to a Hong Kong auction house. Again, Stewart failed to cover his tracks, leaving his passport details when they made the £80,000 sale.

When they tried to sell the vase, they walked straight into a trap laid by the Metropolitan Police, who were by now on their trail. Posing as art buyers, officers arranged to meet the thieves at a central London hotel. Selling the stolen artefact to the officers for £450,000, Stewart and co-conspirator Mbaki Nkhwa were immediately arrested.

This week, the Ahearne brothers pleaded guilty at a court in Geneva after being extradited, and were sentenced to three-and-a-half-year jail terms, which for now will be served in Switzerland. They were banned from visiting the country afterwards for five years each, and ordered to pay £13,770 in damages to the Baur Foundation.

The gang, said Justice President Patrick Monney, had “acted out of desire to enrich themselves,” adding that “this desire was considerable”.

the Baur Foundation
The brothers have been ordered to pay £13,770 in damages to the Baur Foundation - Baur Foundation

So how did the Ahearne brothers – the sons of a practising osteopath and both fathers themselves – become involved in an audacious international heist?

Their mother, Sue, is a qualified osteopathic therapist who studied at the British College of Osteopathic Medicine and runs a pain management clinic in New Eltham, south-east London. She told the court that Louis was a “compassionate and empathetic” person who had an “unhappy childhood”.

This week, she was said to be “not in a capacity” to speak about what had happened, with someone close to her telling The Telegraph, “It’s extremely hard for any mum.”

Her son Louis attended Thomas Tallis School, a large mixed comprehensive in Kidbrooke, Greenwich, that also counts shoe bomber Richard Reid among its former students.

Louis appears to have had a number of jobs during his adult life, including as a transport manager and as the owner of a cleaning company based at a residential address in Sheerness, Kent.

Louis has a nine-year-old son, to whom he has been writing from prison in Switzerland, his mother told the court. His Facebook page, which features pictures of his child, suggests he is a proud father.

But the Swiss heist wasn’t his only foray into crime. In 2020, also as part of a gang of three, he posed as a police officer to gain access to a gated property near Westerham in Kent, then stole money, handbags and designer trainers. This, too, ended unhappily for Louis: he was convicted of burglary and attempted burglary at Maidstone Crown Court and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

The brothers stole a cup, believed to be from the 15th century
The brothers stole a cup, believed to be from the 15th century - PA

He told the court in Geneva he took part in the museum raid to clear a debt. Stewart, a tradesman, is a father of five who said he took “full responsibility” for his actions and had wanted to “protect” his younger brother. His partner, Nicola Berry, described him in court as a “kind, loving and nice person”. His employer had promised to give him a job when he left prison, she said.

In October, she posted (or possibly re-posted) a complaint on Facebook criticising the Government because they allegedly “take care of prisoners and give them everything under the sun” while causing vulnerable elderly people in society to “go broke”.

Stewart, with whom a friend on Facebook said she made a “lovely couple”, denied involvement in the planning of the heist. He claimed he’d been “used as a pawn, like in a game of chess” and had been asked to come to Switzerland to do some driving.

Before his sentencing, he offered an apology. “I would like to say sorry to the person who owns the museum for the pain and inconvenience caused,” he said. “I would like to say sorry to the Swiss society in general. Lastly, I’d like to say sorry to Nicola and my mum.”

Louis also displayed contrition, offering his “condolences to the museum, Swiss society and my family for the stress I have put them through.”

But there remains one thing missing: the third stolen artefact, a wine cup decorated with the image of a chicken, has not been recovered.

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