EDITOR’S COMMENT – In 2001, I had the privilege of being the first journalist to quiz the then arts minister, Alan Howarth, on recommendations submitted by an expert panel investigating measures for tackling the illicit trade in cultural goods.
It was a dual issue problem: the theft of
art and antiques domestically and the international trade in looted
Central to the panel's 16 recommendations
was the setting up of a global database of unlawfully removed
cultural objects, administered by the Home Office, with differing
levels of access for the trade, institutions, private individuals
and the authorities.
My first question to the minister? How will
all this be paid for? His response - that relevant government
departments would have to meet any needs from existing funding -
told me everything I needed to know. Add to that the tragedy of
9/11 a few months later, and the subsequent diversion of police
funding to anti-terrorism measures, and the database was clearly
going to be a non-starter.
However, at the time other factors also came
into play. One was that international police databases, such as
that run by the Carabinieri in Italy, refused to link up with a
British database run by a commercial operation (the Art Loss
Register was the only serious candidate at the time), and
anti-corruption policies meant that police officers developing
specialist knowledge while working in the art and antiques squad
would be moved on after 18 months, just as their expertise and
networking became truly effective.
The most useful product of the
recommendations was a document entitled Principles of Conduct
of the UK Art Market adopted by the British Art Market
So what has changed now? ACPO clearly
believe art crime is more of a priority, but do the government? Are
they really prepared to fund a database properly this time, as well
as a national art and antiques squad? Or is the commitment to
tackling crime just going to be another soundbite?