'Thieves' charter' nears end of its reign: The law of market overt may be on its way out, as David Berry reports

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The Independent Online
THE SECOND time Anne White was burgled her anger spurred her into action. She decided that changing the law was one way she could get revenge on her thief.

As a direct result the third reading of a bill to abolish the 700-year-old market overt law should go through unopposed in the House of Commons next Friday.

'When I came back I could see at once that someone had entered my house and it's a horrible feeling,' said Mrs White. 'I could see a lot of my very favourite things had been taken - all my silverware, some wonderful antique clocks, three paintings we had collected over the years and, of course, my jewellery. And I had this terrible feeling of rage that somebody could do this to me.'

After her previous burglary, 15 years before, she had bought stronger locks, claimed what she could from the insurance and started collecting again.

This time she was so furious she was determined to do more.

And so began an odyssey round Britain's antique and second-hand trade that has taken Mrs White into the murky worlds of art theft, shady dealers and ancient laws that help the thief rather than protect the victim.

It has been a search not without its triumphs. Her persistent visits to antique stalls and fairs have led to the recovery of some property.

But the greatest triumph may be next Friday at the House of Commons, when the ancient law of market overt will almost certainly be abolished.

This law gives people the right to keep a stolen item if they bought it in good faith, between sunrise and sunset, from a market that has been trading since 'time immemorial'. This means that as long as no questions are asked stolen property can become legitimate once it has been sold at such a market. The original owner loses any claim.

After her burglary Mrs White advertised her stolen property in the weekly trade magazine The Antique Trades Gazette. She included a picture of her 19th century carriage clock. The following Friday she received an anonymous phone call telling her that the clock was for sale that day in the antiques market at Bermondsey, London.

'I rushed down to the market but by the time I had got there the clock had gone, sold on to someone else,' she said.

Bermondsey's Friday antiques market is the best known of a number of British markets that retain market overt status. Although most of the traders are completely respectable, they still act like a magnet for thieves because the law of market overt is, in effect, a thief's charter.

It is a start. Other obstacles still hinder victims of burglary getting back their property.

One is that the police still have no nationwide stolen property register. Scotland does - it has had one for five years. But in the rest of Britain each force has its own register of stolen property and, while most are computerised, the computers are not linked up.

Not surprisingly, it is a situation that frustrates arts and antiques officers nationwide. At the very least they would like to be linked up to Scotland Yard's arts and antiques computer, which includes photographs of items reported stolen. But only one other police force, Avon and Somerset, has yet gone on-line with the Met.

So there is little chance for victims of theft to look by themselves for their stolen property.

One reason why it is so easy for a stolen item to vanish is because there is no requirement across Britain for antique and second-hand dealers to keep a register of where their stock comes from and goes. Again, Scotland is an exception, as is North Yorkshire. But thieves are not renowned for restricting themselves to their own part of the country.

If you have precious items stolen, move quickly:

Report it to the police. See if they can get it registered on the Scotland Yard arts and antiques computer (one good reason for photographing valuable items).

Consider advertising in the weekly Antiques Trade Gazette (071 930 7193), the monthly Trace (0752 228727) and the (private) Art Loss Register (071 235 3393).

Scour local antiques stalls and fairs. If you see something of yours, call the police and get them to come as quickly as possible.

The author works for BBC TV's Watchdog.

(Photograph omitted)

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