THE public has been asked to play its part in recovering Medieval art works — described as 'unique and priceless as a Turner or Rembrandt' — which have been stolen from a South Devon church.
Police have launched an investigation after two 15th century hand-painted oak panels were prized out of their fittings from the historic Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, near Ipplepen. A third panel was damaged during the theft.
The panels, which represent St Victor of Marseilles and Saint Margaret of Antioch, are part of a series of 40 depicting God, Mary, the Apostles and other saints, and were set in a colourful rood screen dividing two sections of the church.
Arts historian Dr Neil Rushton, of the Churches Conservation Trust which looks after the 15th century church, said the panels may have been stolen to order because of their rarity.
He said: "Paintings of God, Mary and the Apostles are two to a penny in English churches which is why it is possible these thieves targeted lesser saints as they are much rarer.
"This is the best example of this type of late medieval art in the country. They are as unique and priceless as a Turner or a Rembrandt.
"These panels are irreplaceable. They are intrinsic and indigenous to this church. This theft devalues the whole church."
PC Gareth Beynon, who is investigating the theft, said antiques dealers, auctions houses and museums had all been alerted.
He said: "The community is key to it. We will carry out house to house calls to see if local residents have seen something. It is such a small community.
"If the thieves try to sell the panels, hopefully, they will be recovered. The worst thing would be for these panels to be dumped in a hedge."
Crispin Truman, chief executive of the Churches Conservation Trust, said: "I was shocked to learn of the theft of these panels and the damage done to this significant art work. Holy Trinity is a beautiful public building much admired around the country and beyond. This crime will deprive all visitors and researchers of an important part of Devon's heritage and is essentially a theft of public property. We hope that by publicising the loss we might be able to recover the panels."
The 45cm by 15cm panels are believed to have been pushed out of their rood screen settings. A third panel of an unknown female saint was bashed through and left damaged in situ.
Dr Rushton said: "These panels were of cathedral quality. They have been painted by a specially commissioned artist who would have been a top artist of his day."
It is the not the first time the Torbryan church has been targeted by thieves.
Four panels were stolen before the church was taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust in 1997 and three others were ripped out of their fittings in 2003. They were never recovered.
The latest theft has been publicised on the international Art Loss website so antiques dealers, collectors, museums and auction houses around the world are aware.
The theft is understood to have happened in the two weeks before August 9 when the church was open to the public.
Holy Trinity is a consecrated church and still holds some services but is mainly a tourist and historical attraction.
Pc Beynon said: "I've never personally dealt with the theft of antiquity like this. In a sense it is helpful that the panels are so unique because they will be recognisable.
"I reckon it may have been stolen to order. It is a shame because we can now see the history of this church disappearing before our eyes."
He added: "Our best chance to recover the panels is to advertise the loss to the arts world so antiques dealers and auction houses can flag them up should they come on the market.
"But my fear is that they have been stolen to order and could be in the hands of private collector either on their wall or in a box somewhere for them to covet. That would be the most tragic thing as they would then be lost to the world."
A spokeswoman for the CCT said: "The panels could end as easily end up in the hands of a private collector as in a car boot sale."