Bonhams sell ‘stolen’ Gibson document in New York for $2167

A week ago today, the hammer dropped on a bid of $2167 for a lot on sale at an internet auction held in New York by the prestigious auction house of Bonhams. The item sold was a single sheet of paper, an RAF Pilot’s Combat Report which documented a night fighter operation carried out on 14 March 1941 by a crew from 29 Squadron – the successful shooting down of a German Heinkel 111 bomber.

What separated out this Combat Report from the many thousands filed by pilots throughout the Second World War was that it was completed and signed by a certain Flt Lt Guy Gibson DFC. Just over two years later, he would go on to fame and glory as the first commanding officer of 617 Squadron but, at the time he wrote the report, he was on a tour of duty flying Beaufighter night fighters against incoming German bombers.

Gibson’s report was filed at his base at RAF Wellingore. An intelligence officer read it and added a bit more information of his own, before having it typed up and filed as his own report. The two items eventually passed into the filing system of the Air Ministry, one in a bundle of reports compiled by pilots, the other in a similar bundle of reports from intelligence officers. In due course they were then passed to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives).

Pilot’s combat report dated 14 March 1941, completed and signed by Flt Lt G P Gibson. [pic: Bonhams]

The Gibson report has not been seen for many years, but emerged in the last month for sale at Bonhams auction house in New York. The Air Ministry file number can be seen in the top right corner, seen below in close up:

For confirmation, I sent the image above to a former military specialist in the National Archives. He agreed that this appeared to be a genuine document, and that it was likely to have been amongst the items stolen from the PRO in the late 1980s. The perpetrator in this case was Timothy Graves, a collector specialising in First World War material, but who was also found to have stolen Second World War items, including reports filed by Douglas Bader, Paddy Finucane and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The Times, 23 February 1991

Also included in the Bonhams sale on 7 August were two further sets of Pilot Combat reports. One set of nine documents sold for $2295 and a second group of sixteen went for $3187. It is not known whether they were put up for sale by the same vendor.

It is clear that Graves stole a staggering amount of material. In 2013 Frank Olynk, a contributor to the Aerodrome Forum, described how seven white plastic tubs of documents had been found in his possession, and that a large stack more had been recovered from the USA.

But the experts always suspected that there were many unrecovered documents, probably sold quietly to private individuals. This could be up to ten per cent of the stolen material. As the retired military specialist says, ‘even after 30 years, the legacy of the Graves thefts still causes a ripple in the aviation history world.’

Bonhams were approached for a statement, and commented: ‘As soon as this matter was brought to our attention, we contacted the Public Record Office which is now investigating.’

[Thanks to Carol Davies Foster for help with this article]

4 thoughts on “Bonhams sell ‘stolen’ Gibson document in New York for $2167

  1. Caroline Howell August 15, 2020 / 6:33 am

    I thought provenance was everything in the world of collecting. Perhaps big auction houses don’t bother much with what are for them, low value pieces, and buyers trust them (or don’t care).
    Graves got a suspended sentence! I know it’s a while since the 80’s, but his punishment was hardly proportionate to his crime.
    Some people feel this sort of theft is a victimless crime. It isn’t.

  2. Christopher John Ailsby August 25, 2020 / 8:02 pm

    I am a little concerned as to your statement. As a historian, your comments are at most confussing. As a legal student the statements you make are again most inappropriate. How do you know : – or think this document is stollen?

    Personally I have been on the trail of stollen documents, the best know is that of those from the Berlin document center.

    I must say you are a very “Brave Man” to call this into disrapute.

    I would look forward to your clarrification on the matter and your statements.

    [email address redacted]

    • charlesfoster August 26, 2020 / 10:19 am

      Dear Mr Ailsby
      The document was once in the PRO’s collection — this is confirmed by the Air Ministry file number. In my article, I only say that “it was likely to have been amongst the items stolen from the PRO in the late 1980s”. I don’t regard this as being the actions of a Brave Man, more a believer that national archives are kept for the benefit of the people, and should be accessible to all. Anyone who removes items from the collection, whether for private use or monetary gain, deserves to face the full rigours of the law. — Charles Foster

  3. baky999 August 27, 2020 / 8:41 am

    Hello Charles

    I must admit I am a little confused as well as your headline clearly states Bonhams, sells stolen Gibson Document and then in your article it says it is likely to have been stolen.

    For the article to be stolen it has to be proved that the PRO office actually had this report In the first place as we all know hundreds of thousands of reports never made it to the archive office and were misplaced or binned by the Air Ministry before sending to archive.

    Thus, the PRO Should have recorded this combat report in their Filing system and they should actually have reported it to the police if it was stolen, so there should be a crime reference.

    This brings me to to your response to Mr Ailsby. You state that the PRO had the file because of the Air Ministry number. Can you shed a light on this.

    On the written copy By Gibson we have The IIN41/C13/2 Which You are saying is the AM number which is proof it went to the PRO

    The typed Combat report Which should have been attached to the written report on the national archives has a form F with a 307 above it and nothing else, No AM number . If this is the official report which is kept by the intelligence officer, shouldn’t this have the AM number as well ??

    When you type the number of the written report IIN41/C13/2 Into the NA, nothing comes up on the National Archives site.

    Here is the archives reference number which is not on the typed or written copy for the Gibson typed intelligence report AIR 50/15/574

    So as you can clearly see not one number matches the written report with the typed report and the national archives ref number.

    On another note, the typed report that the PRO has, it has a small hole in the centre of a square which looks like something was attached but in the report by Bonhams it has two punch holes in the top corner but these does not line up with the archives report .

    The point is no body knows when or if this report was ever attached and if so who separated them and when. I guess it’s a wait and see from the PRO

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