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John Atkinson is thought to have passed a large number of valuable artefacts stolen from public institutions and private homes to collectors in the US and Japan.

At Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Munro Davies QC, sentencing Atkinson, 47, of Kilburn and co-conspirator Richard Lucas, 67, of South Hampstead, who received four years, said that the figures involved were “formidably large” with the pair handling stolen goods valued at more than £880,000. The total stolen in the raids from which the goods came is thought to have topped the £2m mark.

The gang, which included others, garnered information on the valuables by visiting museums and art galleries as well as picking up loose talk in pubs and quizzing the cleaners at wealthy homes.

Victims included 27 wealthy residences, museums and galleries as well as 11 private libraries, mainly in North London and the Home Counties.

Lucas’s flat and a series of lock-ups he rented were found stuffed with bric-a-brac valued at £550,000, including five Dutch Masters he could not sell because they were “too hot to handle”.