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Bring back the Met’s art and antiquities squad

19 September 2017

Working in the fight against art crime in London it is impossible not to have come into contact with the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit. It was therefore troubling to read reports this summer suggesting that the current hiatus in the work of the unit may become a permanent closure. Other commentators have since suggested that the unit will be restored but, either way, this is a reminder of how fragile our system of policing the art market is in the UK.

The initial closure of the unit back in mid June was not widely anticipated, despite the budgetary pressures constantly faced by the police. The unit has been doing vital work, coordinating efforts to tackle art crime generally, but also leading in more specific areas such as the fight against the illicit antiquities trade. It goes without saying that any closure, temporary or permanent, must hinder those efforts.

Art crime requires specialist policing: that is why the unit was created. It is the best way to ensure that losses are recorded accurately, and also to develop understanding within the force of how the market operates, how values are assigned and what is or is not normal behaviour. The international nature of the art market makes cooperation with other specialist units across the world an essential aspect of its policing; and it is regulated by dedicated legal frameworks, both international and national, as well as the usual criminal law. This need for specialist policing of cultural property crime is widely acknowledged, for example in a recent Interpol publication, and in other countries specialist units are being introduced to tackle it.

Due to the structure of the UK’s police, being split into 45 different territorial forces across the country, we already suffer in comparison to many when policing specialist areas. No force can afford to dedicate resources to every specialism and, as a result, each treats specialist cases differently. Similarly, intelligence sharing is much less effective when it requires communication between so many forces, and it is impossible to build up credible national statistics or patterns for art crime as a result. Even at the most basic level of recording artworks that are stolen, it is remarkable the range in the quality of information that we see provided to us at the Art Loss Register for registration on our database by the various forces around the UK.

Insofar as they could within their remit, the unit was doing its bit to cover this gap in the UK’s policing. They maintained relationships across the globe, acted as the point of contact for international enquiries via Interpol, and used their database to register items reported to them via other UK forces. During their hiatus those international links will be falling away, and matters referred by Interpol from abroad will end up handled by the local force.

This would be bad enough, but when you consider that UNESCO has, within the past year, established funds and special measures to prevent terrorist organisations profiting from the trafficking of antiquities, the decision to suspend the activities of the unit looks even more foolhardy. If such concerns are justified, even in part, then surely the unit must be reinstated urgently as one of the few ways to tackle that trade insofar as it affects, or may come to affect, the UK. The vigilance with which the unit has monitored the antiquities trade in London and the South East can only be a deterrent.

This is not the first time such a unit has been closed. It already happened once at the Met, in 1984, but following pressure from the market and international authorities it was resurrected by Dick Ellis in 1989. It happened in the Netherlands in 2002, where the department was also reopened a few years later. Any closure must result in the loss of records, expertise, and relationships. That can be costly, and sometimes impossible, to recover. We must hope that the unit is returned to an operational status before they start to suffer these losses.

The art market in London will probably not feel an immediate impact: the officers of the unit are doing a fantastic job trying to make sure that ongoing investigations are brought to a conclusion. See for example the recent conviction of Aleksander Ribnikov for fraud in relation to the consignment to auction of a silver patera with falsified provenance. Having assisted the unit with that investigation prior to their suspension it is gratifying to see a successful conviction.

That said, if this hiatus continues then there will be more impact in the longer term. In particular, we should anticipate that investigations will be slower, and that any international element will become more complex. That should be of wider concern as the strength of the art market in London, and the UK generally, is reliant upon its reputation and we should not allow that to be weakened.

Of course, one must be cautious before criticising the precise use of the police budget: we do not have access to the information underlying those difficult decisions. However, to simply draw to a close the work of an entire unit, specialising in the policing of a complex but valuable part of our national economy, must be wrong. Whether the unit returns to duty or not, this should be a wake-up call. All of those with a link to the sector need to consider what can be done to ensure that one of the foremost art markets in the world is not left without adequate policing. There may be room for improvements in partnerships with the private sector, or the funding of the unit may need to be considered. The Wildlife Crime Unit, when threatened with closure, was saved by charitable funding and similar arrangements are in place in other specialist areas.

We must hope that sense prevails and the unit is returned to active status, but even if this is the case conversations need to begin now among stakeholders across the market as to how to ensure that a similar scenario does not arise in future.