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."

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