Psst…Want to buy a Babylonian tablet?

William Catter kept an antiquities shop in Great Russell Street, close to the British Museum. He employed a young lad named Frederick Franklin as a clerk and at some point in 1889 Catter began to notice some of his possessions had gone missing. His suspicion fell on Frederick and he accused him of theft. The boy attempted to fake a letter from ‘a friend in Tokio [sic] claiming they were e a gift. The dealer was unimpressed and summarily dismissed him from his service.

Sometime later Mr Catter was visiting the museum when to his shock he saw they had twelve of his Babylonian tablets (which he valued at £12) on display! He applied for a warrant and had Frederick arrested.

On June 26th 1890 Frederick appeared at the Bow Street Police court accused of stealing the antiquities (the tablets and some Japanese items). A detective from the Met was there to prove the boy’s guilt and to his credit Frederick admitted his crime. His lawyer said he was sorry but he had been in debt and had sold the items to a third party ‘on the representation that they were his property’.

Sir John Bridge, the justice at Bow Street, sentenced Frederick to three months in prison. In 1998 Christie’s offered several cuneiform tablets of Babylonian origin for sale at around £450-550 each but in recent years the collapse of the Iraqi state means you can pick them up ‘for a song’ on eBay. In 1890 their value (as suggested by Mr Catter) was around just £60 each but I imagine it depends quite how good an example or how rare they were.

Mr Catter’s shop is no longer there but there is an old antiquities and coin shop just opposite the museum which has been trading since the 1960s, I wonder if they ever find their stock across the road?

[From Daily News, Friday, June 27, 1890]

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