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At issue was the question of ownership of a stolen Georgian fireplace, valued at €76,000 (£49,000). Should an antique dealer, who claimed to have bought it twice in good faith, be allowed to keep it, given that the statute of limitations governing its ownership expired six years ago? Or should the fireplace be returned to its original owner, who has since received IR£4,500 compensation from an insurance company for its theft?

After a two-day hearing in the Dublin District Court, Judge Gerard Haughton rejected the claim by British-born antique dealer Patrick Pilkington, now living in the Irish midlands, at Coole, County Westmeath. He ordered that the marble and pine fireplace, dating from 1750, be returned to John Dowling, from whose country house, Summer Grove, Mountmellick, County Laois, it had been stolen 12 years ago.

The court heard that as the thieves were carrying it through a paddock at the house, a piece of carving fell off. Mr Dowling, who now lives in Bray, County Wicklow, recovered it and was able to demonstrate to Gardai that it matched the repaired fireplace when it turned up at an antiques fair over a decade later.

Counsel for Mr Pilkington told the court that in 1991, unaware of the Summer Grove burglary, he bought the fireplace for £5,000 from Philip O’Neill, a restoration and reproduction expert, who had it on display at his premises in Carrickmines, Dublin. It was being sold on a commission basis on behalf of a Dublin-based builder and antiques spotter, Len Woodburn. He had since died but, according to Mr O’Neill, “would never have gone near anything dodgy”.

Mr Pilkington had taken the fireplace to London where he sold it to a Japanese corporation for £9000. Seven years later he bought it back from the same group for £10,000, when a planned country club venture failed to get off the ground, and paid an additional £5000 to ship it to Europe.

During the intervening 10 years, the value of Georgian antiques had soared, the court heard, and when the fireplace went on sale at the Irish Antiques Fair in Dublin in 2000, the asking price was IR£60,000. It was on offer at a stand owned by Desmond Fitzgerald, a business friend of Mr Pilkington, but shortly after the fair opened it was seized by officers from the Gardai Fine Arts Squad, on the grounds that it had been stolen.

Counsel for Mr Pilkington, arguing that he was now the legal owner, said the statute of limitations on the original ownership had expired after six years, and his client had twice bought the fireplace in good faith. He likened it to the fate of the Elgin Marbles, which he said had been bought from the Turks on behalf of the British government to prevent them being destroyed.

Judge Haughton remarked that while it might be difficult to prove the Elgin Marbles were stolen, there was no dispute that the fireplace had been taken in a burglary. He agreed Mr Pilkington had acquired the fireplace under the statute of limitations, but said the court was also required to consider ownership on public policy grounds.

He was not satisfied with the credibility of Mr Pilkington, or with the documentation he had furnished to back up his case. The original purchase of the fireplace, said the judge, had been carried out in a most unusual way and the subsequent sale to a Japanese country club and its reacquisition had been done in secrecy.

“It was never purchased on the open market, a prerequisite for vesting ownership under sale of goods legislation. In my view, it would be clearly contrary to public policy to allow Mr Pilkington to benefit to such a substantial degree if he had acquired under the statute of limitations what was clearly stolen property, and where his credibility and dealings have been tainted by secrecy, questionable documentation and unreliable, indeed unbelievable, evidence.”

The judge added that, despite the statute of limitations, even if the fireplace burglars were caught and convicted at this stage, ownership would revert to Mr Dowling. “I do not see why he should be disadvantaged by the failure to catch the thieves and, accordingly, I order that the fireplace be returned to him.”