· Budget cut leads to vain quest for private backers
· Specialist Art Crime unit accorded 'very low priority'
Sandra Laville , crime correspondent
Saturday April 21, 2007
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.
According to art crime sources, officers from the squad worked with Spanish investigators to help crack one of Europe's most spectacular art robberies - the theft of 19 paintings valued at £30m from the Madrid penthouse of Esther Koplowitz, Marquesa of Casa Penalver and Cardenas.
Other successes include the uncovering of a multimillion pound British smuggling operation in which precious antiquities and archaeological artefacts were stolen from Egypt, some of which were sold at Sotheby's.
Last year the unit arrested a gang allegedly responsible for stealing tens of millions of pounds of art and antiques from stately homes over four years, including £30m worth of antiques from Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire.
Mark Dodgson, of the British Antique Dealers Association, said: "The idea of people in the art world funding the squad seems wrong. My members pay taxes already, and surely paying for the police is what their taxes are for."
Scotland Yard confirmed that as yet no private investors had been identified to provide the 50% funding required for the unit by the next financial year.
Art Hostage comments:
One of the last pieces of information given by Art Hostage to Law Enforcement via the Art Insurance industry, a year ago, resulted in preventing a valuable iconic work of art being stolen from the Home of Harry Potter, Alnwick castle, country seat of the fabulously wealthy art collector, the Duke of Northumberland.
Art Hostage learnt from the underworld that Alnwick castle, on the borders of England and Scotland, and where many scenes from Harry Potter have been filmed, was being targeted because it contains a Diamond encrusted Sword, housed in a glass case, in an easy location to smash and grab.
The Drawing Room at Alnwick Castle, below, contains the Harry Potter Diamond Encrusted Sword in a flimsy glass case, below the small painting, black gilded frame, to the left of the fireplace.
Hopefully the new home for the Harry Potter Diamond Encrusted Sword will be more secure, in a tamper proof special casing.
The value of this Diamond encrusted Sword is up to $1 million dollars.
Law Enforcement duly informed the Duke of Northumberland his Diamond Encrusted Sword was at risk and his Grace took the sensible precaution of moving it away from the public gaze, to a more secure location.
Subsequently, known high value art thieves were observed at Alnwick Castle acting suspiciously, after paying for a public tour, then seeing the Diamond Encrusted Sword had been moved from its glass case, the art thieves left Alnwick Castle empty handed, a small Pyrrhic victory.
Sadly, these art thieves have been more successful at other Country mansions.
I hear a round of applause in the background and take my curtain call.
However, Art Hostage has not been given any reward, credit or otherwise.
To add insult to injury, Art Hostage has not been able to reward the underworld contact for his vital information that has saved the "Harry Potter Diamond Encrusted Sword."
However, Art Hostage has, out of his own pocket, rewarded the Underworld contact, who still has vital current and future information to pass on.
It is about time for a summit to be called so that an effective policy can be formulated across the whole panorama of art related crime.
Until then we shall be left Tilting at Windmills, paying lip service when high value art thefts occur, and go round in circles when high value stolen art is recoverable.