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 antiquities.
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 Federation.
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?