Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

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Even today, the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques London Stolen Art Database is up to five years out of date, with its website listing objects stolen in February 2008 as being the most recent thefts.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 vehicles."

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."

Co-ordinated Response

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, Durham").

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.