An Uncertain Future for the Art & Antiques Squad

A fake work of art created by Shaun Greenhalgh, which was purported to be a sculpture by Gauguin. It was revealed thanks to uncovering the Greenhalgh family forgeries

Some troubling news in London reveals that Scotland Yard may see an uncertain future for its Art and Antiques Unit. The offices who had been assigned to the unit have been reallocated to investigating the Grenfell Tower tragedy. This is a shame, as the unit is one of the world’s longest-running art crime policing units, with some terrific prosecutions of note, including the Jonathan Tokeley-Parry conviction (which set the stage for the Fred Schultz conviction in the United States), the discovery of the myriad art frauds committed by the Bolton Forgers, and many other notable initiatives.

Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper that:

Vernon Rapley, who led the Art and Antiques Unit from 2001 until 2010, told The Art Newspaper that he is “worried that the closure of the unit is now being considered”. He added: “I am very concerned that the Metropolitan Police is unable to give assurances on when the three detectives who have been temporarily reassigned will be returned to the unit.”

The three officers are detective constables Philip Clare, Sophie Hayes and Ray Swan. There is currently no detective sergeant responsible for the unit, following the departure of Claire Hutcheon last March.

James Pickford in the Financial Times also noted the importance of the unit to the United Kingdom’s licit art trade:

Dick Ellis, founder and former head of the art squad, said: “To close — if it is to be closed — a small but very specialised unit at Scotland Yard, which is there among other things to assist other countries, is madness.” He added the squad had been closed once before, in 1984, for budgetary reasons, but reopened again in 1989 following pressure from other international forces and the art market. One issue at the centre of concerns about the possible closure of the Met art unit is the fight to prevent looted or stolen antiquities from the Middle East being used to fund terrorism. The unit works with overseas forces to identify illicit trafficking of cultural goods, and can take action when UK-based dealers and auctioneers relay their suspicions about objects of questionable provenance. It also maintains the London stolen arts database, which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property. The UK had a 21 per cent share of the $56bn global art market by value in 2016, second only to the US with 40 per cent, according to research by Arts Economics, a consultancy. One art market professional who had dealt regularly with the Met art unit over the past decade described its detectives as “dedicated and knowledgeable”. “If that unit is lost it would be a great concern for the art market,” they said.

Martin Bailey, Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit heading for closure, The Art Newspaper (Aug. 16, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/closure-of-scotland-yard-s-art-and-antiques-unit-now-being-considered/.
James Pickford, Warning over break-up of Scotland Yard specialist art unit (Aug. 0, 2017), https://www.ft.com/content/53a4d768-82a2-11e7-94e2-c5b903247afd.

Vernon Rapley Leaves the Metropolitan Police for the V&A

According to a report by the Art Newspaper, the V&A museum has hired Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley away from Scotland Yard’s art and antiques.  The V&A is a massive museum, which has been difficult to safely secure in the past.  Here’s to hoping he can continue to improve the V&A’s security.  From the Art Newspaper:

He joins the museum on 21 June, to take charge of security and visitor services. Before turning to art, Rapley investigated murder, paedophilia and child abuse at the Metropolitan Police. He really got to know the V&A in 2004, when there was a spate of thefts at major London museums. The V&A was hit three times, and 38 rooms had to be shut, many for years, while security was upgraded. Supported by the V&A, the Yard set up the London Museum Security Group. Rapley even took a turn as guest curator earlier this year, when he organised a Scotland Yard-curated display at the museum on fakes and forgeries, which spotlighted the case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, who created objects ranging from Egyptian antiquities to modern paintings.

  1. V&A gets its own personal detective | The Art Newspaper, (2010), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/V&A-gets-its-own-personal-detective/21044 (last visited Jun 9, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Greek Icon Returned

This 14th century icon was returned to Greece this week, 30 years after it was stolen from a monastary in Serres, Northern Greece.  The work was recovered by the Art and Antiques Squad in 2002. 

From Helena Smith’s piece in the Guardian:

It emerged in London in 1980 when a British Byzantinist, Professor Robin Cormack, spotted it in a suitcase in a restorer’s atelier. It had been touched up by the looters to make it more saleable in the underground art market.
“It had been cut in two by the looters. Seeing what it was, Robin realised it must have been stolen and advised them to return it to Greece,” said the cultural attache at the Greek embassy in London, Victoria Solomonides, who travelled with the icon to Greece.
“That did not happen and 10 years later the plot thickened when he was called by the British Museum to value an icon. It was the same one.”
On the advice of Cormack, curator of the Byzantium exhibition currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts, the British Museum decided not to buy the icon.

It seems then in 2002 a Greek art dealer offered to sell the work to the Benakis Museum in Athens for  £500,000.  It seems the High Court has ordered the return of the work in a proceeding “Six weeks ago”.  I’ve attempted to track donw the ruling this morning on baili.org, but I suspect the ruling is unpublished.  If any of my kind UK readers could confirm this, I would be most grateful. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art-Beat Constables

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has the story of Scotland Yard’s part-time volunteer officers which have been tasked with policing art theft, the sale of looted antiquities, forgery and fraud. 

ArtBeat began in January 2007, and there are currently 13 special constables (six males and seven females). These include two from national museums, three from the Art Loss Register, three archaeologists with the remainder from a variety of institutions. The two from museums are Zoe Jackman of the V&A (see below) and Michael Lewis of the British Museum, where he is deputy head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Art and Antiques Unit needs all the manpower it can get. Last year Scotland Yard proposed halving the staff of its Art and Antiques Unit, which had four officers. In the end, the cuts did not proceed and funding has been confirmed for the current financial year. Nevertheless, resources are tight and having 13 part-time special constables for two days a month is equivalent to one extra full-time officer. Inspector Alan Seldon told us: “There are only four officers in the unit. The scheme expands what we can do, and enhances our capability.” He wants to encourage more recruits from the London art scene.

This seems to be a good idea generally, and if it helps the Arts and Antiques Unit, that must be a good thing.  But its no substitute for an open and honest market in art and antiquities. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on the Bolton forgers (UPDATE)

Peter Nahum has an excellent editorial in the Art Newspaper titled “How I was duped by the Bolton forgers“. Nahum, the director of the Leicester Galleries in London details the fraud in 1990

[S]he wished to sell a painting by the Scottish Colourist, Samuel John Peploe, which she had inherited from her grandfather who had owned an art gallery. This was confirmed by a label on the reverse: “The Metcalfe Gallery, 45 Dundas Street, Edinburgh”. She arranged for her husband to bring the painting to the gallery after 6pm and stated that she wanted cash… In the middle of that night I woke up and realised it was almost certainly a fake.

In fact he wasn’t duped, as he cancelled the check quickly and reported the incident to the police. It seems the Greenhalgh’s had built quite a reputation for passing forged art, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Greenhalgh’s were finally raided. The troubling aspect of this case is the fact that these individuals were suspected art forgers, yet the state of the market is such that legitimate works cannot be distinguished from forgeries sold by known art forgers. The clear indication is that there needs to be a radical shift in the way the art market guarantees authenticity and title. Either a centralized database, or some kind of title insuring mechanism is sorely needed to prevent this kind of fraud.

One wonders how often dealers suspect the dubious nature of a work, but because a forgery may be of such a high quality, they reason that members of the public would not suspect. Nahum’s statement on this is quite telling I think:

The point about the Greenhalgh case … is that what seems to be a rock solid provenance can distract the expert’s eye from careful assessment. Every cloud has a silver lining; although I have sometimes lost money tracking down fakers and reporting them, I have gained another arrow in my street-smart quiver. Never trust a provenance until it can be verified. Trust your eye and instinct, your personal researches and any reliable expert on the subject you can consult.

At a minimum, the relevant law enforcement personnel should have circulated the names of the Greenhalgh’s among the dealing community to prevent further fraud. The understaffed Art and Antiques Unit was slow in responding as well it would seem. Another difficulty is the ambiguity which the term “provenance” encompasses. If courts in the UK had a wider sampling of cases with which to grapple, perhaps a firm conception of the term would emerge, however these cases occur relatively infrequently. As such, we are relying on industry practice to define the boundaries of “good provenance” and that has produced a deeply unsatisfying system.

UPDATE:

Jamie Grace, a friend and researcher at the University of Derby emailed me with some very interesting thoughts on this situation:

The sale of a forgery (and the resale of stolen art in general) would cause difficulties for DACS the agency that attempts to administer the Artist’s Resale Rights Regulation 2006. I support your call for an authenticity database – from my perspective, it could be linked to another mandatory database detailing sales, making the administration of the 2006 Regulations for the benefit of contemporary artists a lot easier.
As for the Art & Antiques Unit, restrictions on a researcher’s ‘right to know’ under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 means that for ‘operational reasons’ the Unit cannot divulge many details about recovered or stolen works or art (or antiques etc.) – so a curious or suspicious art market professional cannot even go straight to the Unit to check provenance. Allowances are hard to make for the reasons of understaffing when the legal framework itself defeats the aims of sensible dealers.

Jamie knows far more about DACS than I do. From what I understand it is essentially a scheme which takes a small portion of the sale of works of art and distributes it among contemporary artists. I hope to hear more from him on that in the coming months here.

I’ll confess I was unaware of the implications of the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, but they only seem to be undercutting the work of the Unit in this case.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Coins, Country Houses and Law Enforcement

Karin Goodwin has a piece in The Herald today titled Masterpiece Detectives: inside the investigator’s art. It details the theft of 2000 coins from Lord Stewartby recently, and covers all the big thefts from Madonna of the Yarnwinder to the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. She also talks with the former middleman for stolen art “ArtHostage”, as well as Dick Ellis the former head of the Met art and antiques squad. Here is an excerpt:

Lord Stewartby’s coin collection was said by experts to be unique. The former Tory minister started it when he was just four years old and, more than 60 years later, he had amassed almost 2000 coins, dating back as far as 1136 and valued at more than £500,000.

They included a silver penny minted under the reign of Robert the Bruce and others struck under James I and II. In short, it was the most historically important collection in Britain. A leading numismatist, the 72-year-old peer had retired in May and, anticipating time to concentrate on research, had taken his collection home to Broughton Green, the house in the Borders where 39 Steps author John Buchan once lived, to be catalogued. But it seems he was not the only person attracted to rare coins. Between June 6 and 7, while he and his wife were on holiday, the house was broken into and the collection taken. “It was such a great shock,” he said at the time.

The £50,000 reward he has put up for information leading to its safe return speaks volumes about his determination to get the collection back. That means a select band of individuals may be wondering if the phone will ring requesting their expertise. A group of former senior police officers – most of whom worked for the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit – loss adjustors and international data-base co-ordinators are the UK’s art detectives.

For the most part they insist that criminals behind art thefts are not really any different from any other. They reject outright too, the myth of a Dr No-type figure sitting in his nuclear bunker surrounded by precious masterpieces and fine antiques.

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But it’s certainly big business. Internationally, an estimated 10,000 works – collectively worth billions of pounds – are taken from museums, private collections and country homes every year. These supplement the catalogue of the already missing, which runs to some 479 Picassos, 347 Miros, 290 Chagalls, 225 Dalis, 196 Durers, 190 Renoirs, 168 Rembrandts and 150 Warhols. Internationally, the most famous thefts include that of 13 works, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt and collectively worth $300m, from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston.

Mark Dalrymple is credited as having “founded the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat) in the late 1980s… It resulted in the abolition of the market ouvert principle, and, for a while at least, better co-operation from dealers.” The market overt rule had long been criticized as a “medieval relic” and I think the last straw was the theft of valuable works from Barristers at Lincoln’s Inn. A Reynolds and a Gainsborough portrait were stolen, then sold at Bermondsey for £ 145. The Barristers had to purchase the work back because the good faith purchaser had good title under the market overt exception to the common law rule nemo dat quod non habet (meaning he who has no title passes no title). Professor Norman Palmer wrote briefly about the event in an editorial here.

Otherwise its an interesting overview, which highlights the difficulty in protecting remote country houses and garnering enough law enforcement resources. The Met’s art and antiques squad has only 4 officers, and those are in jeopardy of being halved.

Error:

I misread the source article and made a pretty obvious mistake. ArtHostage, the former stolen art handler, was of course not credited with helping to bring about the end of the market overt principle. Rather it was Mark Dalrymple. Many thanks to ArtHostage himself for pointing out the error. I have corrected the relevant text in the first and second-to-last paragraphs. You can read his thoughts here.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

A Magritte is Recovered


Magritte’s Les Reflets du Temps has been recovered. The work had been stolen from storage in 2006. The work may be worth up to £350,000. The work was discovered by a member of the public who checked it against the London Stolen Art Database. This is welcome news, and perhaps will give pause before planned cuts the the Art and Antiques unit take place.

Det Supt Vernon Rapley, head of the unit, said: “For anyone considering buying art, antiquities or cultural property the database is an invaluable resource to help buyers check that they aren’t being sold stolen items.

“I am really pleased that the database has enabled this Magritte to be found so that the victim can have it returned to them.”

Exactly right, but the website explicitly states that it should not be used for due diligence purposes. The problem with databases, is there are too many, and they are divided regionally. Ideally there would be one overarching database any prospective buyer could check.

There is no word either on who stole the work. Unfortunately that is often the case when stolen art like this is recovered. The thieves are long gone, and the authorities main priority (and perhaps rightly so) is the recovery of the work. This also makes it appear as if there are little or no penalties to be had for stealing works though.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com