Stolen art exports 'easy', say police

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POOR control of British export laws is allowing stolen works of art to be smuggled out of the country through official channels, according to police.

They say criminals are applying for official export licences for legitimate artefacts, then switching cargoes or adding stolen art works to the consignment.

Detective Sergeant Richard Ellis, a member of the Metropolitan Police fine art and antiques squad, said that the method worked because 'there does not appear to be any system of checking . . . no one ensures that an object described on the form is the one in the container'.

He said it was impossible to estimate the amount lost each year by such frauds.

DS Ellis described how in one case a stolen painting surfaced in America and was traced back to Britain. Detectives discovered that it had been sent out of the country in a container using an export licence which described the cargo as 'household effects'. He said: 'The household effects were not from the same household as the painting.'

An officer with the Sussex force in Brighton described trying to control the export situation as a 'nightmare'. He said informants had told police that handlers were filling containers with both bona fide and stolen items.

Trade papers carry advertisements placed by shipping companies offering space in containers. 'Once they've done that,' he said, 'they (the handlers) fill in a Customs declaration that export items are not old enough to require a licence, and out they go. Handlers know that the chances of being discovered are pretty slim.'

Part of the problem is that works of art are so well packed and Customs have limited manpower. The Sussex officer said that checking one container at Heathrow took an entire day. Stolen items are sometimes placed within larger pieces of furniture; chests of drawers, for example, can be stuffed with small items of silver and porcelain.

The officer said: 'Imagine the cost and time for Customs to unload and repack it all. It has to be properly packed with bubble wrapping. They're liable for damage, so they have to be careful.'

He added that antiques have also been used to smuggle drugs. 'It's possible to hollow out the legs of chairs. Drugs are easy to disguise anywhere, especially LSD-type drugs, just pin-dots.' Smugglers had even hollowed out statues for drugs: 'It is difficult for sniffer dogs to get through that medium.'

Police usually rely on information from 'reliable' informants, he explained. 'But they are few and far between.'

Even if a stolen work has been sold on and is being exported in good faith, no checks are made against any registers of stolen art.

A spokesman for Customs and Excise admitted that its officers do not do spot-checks, though they can open containers 'if we come across anything'. He said that 'we get charged by various departments to administer different laws', but that most of the controls were directed at 'things coming in', such as drugs.

DS Ellis would like to see a system of spot-checks introduced, perhaps one in every 100. He intends to broach the idea with the Department of National Heritage. However, a spokesman for the department said: 'Our role in the licensing is making sure that the object being licensed is what it is supposed to be. We require photographs of that object before it is granted a licence. In terms

of whether spot-checks take place, that's a matter for Customs and Excise. From our point of view, we think the system works well.'