Talks have begun once more on creating a national stolen property database to tackle the £300m problem of heritage and cultural property crime.
The Association of Chief Police Officers
(ACPO), who are driving the initiative, also want to set up a
dedicated UK policing unit and a network of specialist officers at
local level to tackle the problem.
ACPO brought together a number of interested
parties under the banner of the Heritage and Cultural Property
Crime (HCPC) Working Group to launch their strategy document last
week, setting out a raft of recommendations resulting from a
national strategic assessment on what has been dubbed 'Heritage and
Cultural Property Crime' (HCPC), recognising that the present
approach has significant shortcomings.
The recommendations come more than a decade
after similar proposals foundered for lack of funding, policing
policy, political will and administrative difficulties.
Even today, the Metropolitan Police Art and
Antiques London Stolen Art Database is up to five years out of
date, with its website listing objects stolen in February 2008 as
being the most recent thefts. With this in mind the greatest
challenge for ACPO will be showing that their proposals are more
than just another talking shop.
This latest campaign for a database of
stolen art and antiques follows a series of break-ins at auction
houses, violent robberies of dealers, and church, museum and art
gallery thefts, in the past few years. Authorities recognise that
as recession bites, criminals see art and antiques as a low-risk,
high-yield target, with offences proving difficult to prevent and
hard to investigate.
The HCPC assessment states: "International
art theft is estimated to cost around $6 billion a year, with 20%
of art stolen being destroyed or lost forever. The theft of art and
antiques in the UK is estimated to be worth around £300m, second
only to drug dealing and more costly than the theft of stolen
It adds: "London is a significant
international hub for the transaction of art and antiques,
generating a significant income for the UK. It is therefore
essential that law enforcement professionals, cultural sector
professionals and the UK art and antique trade work together to
protect the international reputation of the market."
The lack of a national, co-ordinated
response or expertise at local level have been significant barriers
to tackling the issue, the assessment recognises.
"Due to the specialist nature of the
heritage sector, HCPC often fails to gain any significant and
dedicated traction at a local policing level."
Crime prevention and due diligence have had
to rely, instead, on commercially run stolen art and antiques
databases such as the Art Loss Register.
The assessment suggests "exploring the
creation" of a national database "with an image comparison
capability that links directly with the Interpol Works of Art
database; and which provides the ability for commercial access to
assist with due diligence searches".
Improving the relationship with interested
parties such as auctioneers "in order to improve the flow of
intelligence" is another recommendation, as is "developing HCPC
awareness guides for all front-line police officers" and "bespoke
crime prevention advice".
The National Policing Lead on HCPC is Chief
Constable Andy Bliss of Hertfordshire Police and the working group
includes such bodies as the National Museum Security Group (run by
Vernon Rapley of the V&A, former head of the Met art and
antiques squad), the British Museum Portable Antiquities Scheme and
Operation Shrewd (which is "reviewing and working against the theft
of jade, rhino horn and Chinese artefacts following major thefts
from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Oriental Museum,
The assessment is sketchy about funding their suggested
initiatives, however, which could prove to be the crucial issue. It
states: "Continued funding to prevent and enforce HCPC is
fundamental to future reduction," but there appear to be no real
recommendations on this.