JUST before 5 a.m. on Sept 14, a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat gold was stolen from an art exhibition at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

There has been no trace of it since.

The police are still looking for the missing john - an artwork called ''America'' by Maurizio Cattelan  - but, so far, they remain empty-handed. A spokesman for the force carrying out the investigation Thames Valley Police, declined to discuss the case.

The spokesman did confirm that six people had been arrested in connection with the theft, only to be released later without charge.

The police may not know what has happened to the toilet, but residents of Woodstock, a town near the palace, have plenty of theories.

Richard Jackson, a gardener, said he thought it was still on the palace grounds. The robbers probably threw it off a bridge into one of the two lakes on the property, he said.

''It ain't going to rust, is it? he added. ''You could wait a year, then get it out.''

''It's on a building site,'' said Susan Hughes, a taxi driver,'' that's my theory.'' New homes are being built near the palace, she noted. ''And there are diggers, dumpers, everything, there.'' The robbers could have made a hole for the toilet then ''covered it the same night,'' she added.

Martin Thomas-Jeffreys, an antiques dealer, said he was sure those theories were wrong. The toilets would have been melted down, he said. By some estimates, the gold could be worth $4 million. ''Whoever did it, definitely planned it,'' he said.

''It's not like slipping a tiara in your pocket, is it?'' Nobody had offered a a gold toilet to his store, he added.

Others guessed that it had been flown out of Britain from a small airport about two miles away.

Some even suggested that it hadn't been stolen at all and that maybe Mr. Cattellan had ''probably got it sitting somewhere to see what the reaction of us people is.''

One thing that linked the theories, said Christine Johnson, a school worker, was that nobody was taking the crime seriously.'' ''Quiet honestly, people think it's a joke,'' she said. There were even a few spray-painted imitations round the town, she added.

Laura Ahibin said she was glad it was gone. She was American but lived locally. she said, and had found the artwork so disrespectful both to her birthplace and to that of Winston Churchill that she had decided to stay away from the palace.

''When I heard the news, I thought, ''Oh, good, I can go back,'' she said.

Lacey Chandler, 9 visiting the exhibition with her father, summed up the feeling of many. ''Why should someone steal a gold toilet?'' ''Someone's bum's been on that.''

The World Students Society thanks author, Alex Marshall


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