Scotland Yard Halves Art and Antique Squad Funding

Grim news for the London Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Squad. Saturday’s edition of the Guardian had the following:

The dramatic scaling down of Scotland Yard’s once renowned arts and antique squad has left organised criminals free to plunder the nation’s heritage, according to a leading fine art insurer.

Police have sought private money to finance the squad after its annual budget of some £300,000 was halved earlier this year. But the Guardian has learned that Scotland Yard has failed to secure a penny from insurers or auction houses, after months of discussions.

Britain’s art market is second only to the US and experts claim up to £200m worth of stolen art and antiques are sold in the UK each year. Interpol estimates that art theft is the fourth largest organised crime after drugs, people trafficking and arms.

Annabel Fell-Clark, chief executive of Axa Art UK, which pays out tens of millions of pounds a year to reimburse victims of art theft, condemned the slashing of the unit’s budget. She warned that scaling down the unit was already having an impact on pursuing art thieves who target Britain’s stately homes and museums.

“We have seen that they [the team] are increasingly overstretched and being treated as a very low priority. At the moment we have very good information which we are wanting to pass on, which would bring arrests, if not convictions. But we are not being treated particularly seriously, let’s put it that way.

“We want to see criminal gangs brought to justice, and in some instances lack of interest from the squad has stopped us being able to pursue further recovery. We want and need to work with the police.”

She said Axa was aware the government was seeking funding for the squad but the company had decided it would not consider paying directly for the unit, adding that attempts by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police to find private sponsors in the art world were shortsighted.

“It would be a conflict of interest for us to get involved,” she said. “We have slightly different agendas. As insurers, we are interested in recovering the pieces however we can, and are not that bothered about finding and prosecuting the perpetrators. We are concerned that this aspect of law enforcement is not taken particularly seriously right now.

“Very often when you are investigating art theft connections are uncovered with organised crime in relation to drugs and arms dealing, so it doesn’t make sense to ignore this aspect of criminal activity.”

The London based “arts squad” was formed in 1969 to pursue and prosecute criminals who operate in the second biggest art market in the world. In the past the unit, which is called in to investigate 120 cases a year, was involved in recovery of art works across the world.

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This is a troubling development. 150,000 is not a very large sum, and a drop in the bucket compared to the amounts of money which changes hands in the UK art and antiquities market. If the United Kingdom is serious about combating the illicit trade in arts and antiquities, it needs to maintain a well-funded art-theft unit. To expect the arts and antiquities unit to solicit funding from those they are supposed to regulate and police also strikes me as ridiculous.

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What is the Practical Effect of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003?

“Dealers are Confident their methods won’t trigger the offence…”

Yesterday evening I had the great pleasure in attending a program by Dr. Simon Mackenzie at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in London. He gave some of his initial findings on a survey of important players in the antiquities market he had just completed with Professor Penny Green. Mackenzie was just starting to interpret his data quite obviously. A couple things he said really jumped out though, and should make the scholarly output from this project much sought-after.

According to Mackenzie, many of the respondents thought the act was of minimal effect. This is my view as well. There have been no completed prosecutions under the act, though apparently some charges have been brought for altering parts of registered buildings, but no convictions have been achieved. As I’ve argued before, prosecutions under the act will almost certainly be few and far between The reason for that is the difficulty of proof. The market does not operate with provenance or chain of title. Any given vase could have been in a collection for 150 years, or could have been unearthed last week. There is no way of distinguishing them once they have been restored.

I found one interview response from London’s law enforcement community quite fascinating. The respondent basically stated that the job of the police is to protect London, not to recover Iraqi or any other antiquities. Mackenzie labeled this problem national self-interest. On one level, I can completely see this police perspective. After all, if Londoners were going to allocate enforcement resources, wouldn’t most of them choose safety and security for London first? I think so. However this becomes problematic for the illicit trade in cultural property, which is truly international in character.

Another issue was the fact that these dealers are “powerful constituencies in their own governance”. Essentially, dealers have a great deal of say in how their own regulations are created. In conclusion, Mackenzie summarized the quandary by putting forward two different forms the antiquities market might take: (1) the market would end, or (2) the market would function along the lines of partage. In the latter model, experts would excavate sites, source nations would keep important objects, and then the excess antiquities would be auctioned off to finance the dig itself. In theory that seems a workable model. I’m not an archaeologist, and I have only a cursory knowledge of what they do, but that seems to be a difficult model for them to implement. One possible compromise might be for archaeologists to begin to commercialize their research, and thus allow for responsible commercial exploitation. In turn, dealers could implement some truly effective self-regulatory measures.

In the end, what I took from the discussion was a new-found respect for the Cultural Objects offence. I have been quite critical of it in the past, but I think, that only a truly draconian regulatory framework can effectively police the market as it currently operates. The best means of reform is to convince dealers that more money can be made by selling provenanced antiquities. That is a big job, and quite daunting, but achievable in my view.

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