Criminals home in on the booming new market in antiques: modern British junk

Once it was the Stubbs painting hanging in a stately home that was at risk of the specialised art criminal. Now, apparently, the rest of the nation should consider locking up its lava lamps.

For according to Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques unit, Sixties and Seventies "junk" has become the latest criminal collectable.

Detective Sergeant Dick Ellis, head of the Organised Crime Group's three- strong unit, said that where there was a market, a new breed of "renaissance" criminals would ensure that there was a supply.

"Things that were about in the Sixties and Seventies are now saleable. If they're saleable they're collectable and if they have a market price then people will steal them," he said.

Burglars are stealing items that 10 years ago would be considered junk, he added, for the simple reason that someone was prepared to buy it. Many thieves watched programmes such as the Antiques Roadshow and found that objects which might have been out of vogue a few years ago were now back in fashion and worth a lot of money.

"We have to get away from the misnomer that arts and antiques are something rather rarefied and only found in galleries and museums. Ninety per cent of what is stolen and finds its way onto the art market is stolen from domestic burglaries. They are going to be ordinary pieces of silver or ordinary pieces of furniture," said Det Sgt Ellis.

Demand for such contemporary items is reflected in the fact that auction houses have responded by opening specialist departments. According to a spokeswoman for Christie's new Europa Gallery, which opened in London last September, the auction house is now processing items manufactured as late as the 1980s.

"There's a growing demand for that kind of stuff; all the other houses are doing it now as well. We call the category modern design," she said. "I don't know if we've sold a lava lamp yet but we probably will."

The Arts and Antiques unit exists for the dual purpose of investigating art crime and managing a database through which stolen items might be returned. Its Bumblebee Imaging System, introduced in 1991, holds details of thousands of stolen artefacts, worth anything between pounds 50 and pounds 500,000.

Often, when Granny's 1950s teapot or Uncle's plastic chair are entered onto the Scotland Yard database and recovered (items are entered according to whether they are identifiable, rather than by their monetary value), no one is more surprised than the owners themselves, said Det Sgt Ellis.

"People are quite surprised when the antiques squad take an interest, because they don't themselves regard [the pieces] as being antiques."

Stolen antiques and works of art form a pounds 5bn industry, second only to drugs in global crime. Britain provides the biggest market in the world, with an estimated pounds 500m worth of goods stolen every year.

Before Det Sgt Ellis re-founded it in 1989, there was no specialist arts unit at all. It had been disbanded in 1984, before police recognised the strong links between art theft and other forms of organised crime.

Det Sgt Ellis said: "The biggest problem we face is communication with other police forces. We have this database on which we are prepared to put property that has been stolen from anywhere; not just London but from abroad as well, because London is a major marketplace. But the majority of police forces do not send us material."

"If there's no trace of the object we are looking at, we can't say it's stolen. So sometimes it goes back to the criminal. Then months later you might find the insurer will place an advertisement [about it] - but it's too late," he said.

Det Sgt Ellis recently attended a conference where international police forces considered the advantages of a pan-European database.

But he is still struggling with the fact that the majority of forces in Britain do not have a database of their own.

"If all police forces invested in a database and communicated more effectively you could actually have a national database at very little cost," he said. This would mean thousands more people a year recovering their stolen property.

"We're able to access France, Italy and Germany from our own office and yet we can't even tell you what's been stolen in Essex."

Det Sgt Ellis also pointed out that while the British unit has a staff of three, its Italian counterpart employs 100 officers.

The failure of what could easily be an effective, national system for recovering people's belongings, he said, was also partly due to regional forces' belief that arts and antiques was an area for specialists, while what they were dealing with was household burglary. This was compounded by national statistics, in which art is lumped in with other stolen property.

"It's been a growth area for a number of years. The antiques fairs circuit has grown enormously, to the point where the market is almost saturated. It's just so easy for people to drive up the motorway, commit thefts, drive to another part of the country and dispose of the goods on the same day.

"It is similarly easy to steal art in one country and sell it in another. It requires no currency exchange and criminals can protect themselves through international law.

"From the criminals' point of view there is an area in which they can operate and resell goods and get the maximum market price themselves."

Police say these are neither amateur, nor opportunist criminals. They research their market, target their goods, and know where to dispose of them. And as targets like banks become harder, the world of art and antiques is considered gratifyingly easy.

The Arts and Antiques Unithas some 20 major investigations under way, mostly international. The unit's integration into the Organised Crime Group helped, Det Sgt Ellis said, as it provided a greater pool of resources and generally gets good cooperation from an often insular and protective market.

"But," Det Sgt Ellis said, "because the marketplace acts in such secrecy, it lends itself to infiltration by the criminal."

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