If your antiques have been stolen, head for Brighton

The Sussex resort is now a thieves' kitchen for heirlooms, says Sarah Jane Checkland

LONDON has a rival for the dubious title of clearing house for the country's stolen antiques: Brighton. Dozens of gangs and crooked dynasties in the pleasant seaside town have perfected systems to divide up the country and go on thieving raids, say police. Because the heirlooms in question are of middle- and lower-ranking quality, owned by ordinary people, they never make news.

But two celebrity art thefts have now drawn attention to the so-called Brighton boys.

First, on 6 February, detectives tracked down the cream of the Duke and Duchess of Kent's collection to a Brighton address after a phone call from a Brighton dealer who had bought two Chinese ceramic pheasants from a local colleague.

Then last Thursday it was revealed how Serena Soames, wife of the Armed Forces minister, wasted no time when her London home was raided in September 1993. Hot-footing it to Brighton, she found some 80 per cent of her property in various shops and stalls, including a cabinet made by her great-uncle.

"All roads seem to lead to Brighton," says Philip Saunders, managing director of Trace, the stolen-art magazine. Not surprisingly, the resort has the biggest police art-and-antiques squad in the country: five officers, compared with the Metropolitan Police's three. They believe they are up against 200-300 antiques thieves based in and around Brighton.

One reason is historical. Brighton has been an antiques centre since Regency days, when people of leisure divided their time between their bathing huts and the huddle of antique shops based in the picturesque area called The Lanes. Today the town still has the biggest concentration of art dealers and bric-a-brac shops outside London. Most are eminently respectable and based either in The Lanes, or a warehouse district called The North Laines (sic).

The end of the Second World War, however, saw an influx of London barrow boys, and the rot began. Tiring of their fruit-and-veg stalls or rag- and-bone carts, they began dabbling in antiques. While their more respectable colleagues used traditional methods of trading, theirs included door-stepping in order to exhort residents to sell. Often they rushed their finds up to London for a quick profit.

Gradually, these "knockers" and "runners" developed more sinister routines, now commonplace. These include what one detective calls "the old woodworm routine", in which they secrete wood dust on their person, and slip some onto the floor, soon to be followed by: "I'm sorry, guv/luv, but your armchair is badly infested. Shall I take it off your hands?"

They learnt to target the elderly, who tend to be gullible and rarely make good witnesses on account of fading eyesight and memory. Recently, Brighton detectives seized a copy of the Kensington voting register in which old-fashioned names had been highlighted. "They look for names like Mabel and Lucy, and of course Lady so-and-so," one officer explained, "then they ring on the doorbell and say one of her neighbours has recommended them."

In a recent case, an elderly London woman was persuaded by her visitors to let them take a ceramic plaque worth some pounds 4,000 and have it reframed. Later they told her it had been broken and paid her just pounds 1,000 compensation. The trick came to light when the object was offered for sale.

Lately, however, the Brighton boys have been getting Napoleonic in their ambitions. Although the "knocking" methods continue, they are also going in for full-scale burglary, having shared out the entire country between them.

"They split themselves into teams, with three or four in a car, and a van following behind to pick up the stuff," a detective said.

"Often they approach a given house and ring on the doorbell. If someone answers they ask whether the occupant would like their drive asphalted. If there is no response, they all pile in."

According to Jim Hill, antiques officer for Thames Valley Police until last year, some 50 per cent of art thefts in his area are by Brighton gangs. Sgt Andy Young of the Brighton art and antique squad says that one group "regularly works the Edinburgh area" while in the past 18 months another has been concentrating on Norfolk and Suffolk. Apart from the Kents, victims in that area include the Duke of Grafton, at Euston Hall near Bury St Edmunds. Yesterday a spokeswoman confirmed that items including a pair of Chippendale card tables and a Regency wine-cooler had been stolen in December: "It looks as though they would have taken more, only I think we disturbed them."

Now there are fears that the Brighton menace will worsen since the abolition a year ago of a medieval law called market overt under which, in certain circumstances, traders were permitted to sell stolen goods, and Bermondsey antiques market in London was a favourite distribution point for villains. "They are now looking for other places to dispose of the goods," Mr Saunders said.

Despite the best efforts of the Brighton police, the forecast is not good. Only 11 out of the 52 police forces in the country have antiques officers, because art theft is low on the list of priorities. Without specialist knowledge, both of the objects and the criminal fraternity, there is little hope that items can be traced.

Over the past 10 years, two private companies have set up computerised lists of stolen art, but all too often the losers have no photographic record of their possessions and individual antiques are virtually impossible to describe.

Another problem is that the Brighton boys are becoming ever more canny. Their expertise is superb. One detective, attending a seminar on antique silver in London, found himself sitting next to one of his regular suspects who was sensibly mugging up on the subject. All the detective could do was ask to be placed at another table.

They are also usually one step ahead of the system, often making sure that stolen objects have been laundered to a chain of unsuspecting buyers. The current fashion is to export much of the loot to the Continent, to countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.

And the thieves know their rights. Sgt Young said: "We have a large number of seizures of stolen property, but such a high standard of proof is required that very often cases never get to court.

He added: "The offence of handling stolen goods is one of the most difficult to prove as there is no onus on the suspect to give an explanation as to where he got it from. It is a disappointing job in terms of turning information into evidence."

Woe betide any Brighton detective who puts a foot wrong, as he can find himself the subject of a complaint by the very people he is pursuing. All too often, due to lack of concrete evidence, police are obliged to return stolen goods to the suspects. Only last year, one particular hoard was put on show in the hope that its owners would come forward to claim it. But, Sgt Young said, "as we couldn't prove that it was stolen, it all went back to the person we seized it from".

Ironically, the occasional breakthrough often comes from the criminals themselves, when they inform on their fellows. "Sometimes an informant gets in touch because he is after reward money," Mr Hill explains. But he adds that these are rare breaks. "We were lucky if we solved 10 per cent of the cases."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there