Dozens of samples of rhino horn have been placed on a new DNA database to counter the activities of a pan-European gang of violent burglars targeting museum collections to feed insatiable demand from the Far East.
Since 2010 poorly protected museums, exhibitions and zoos have been targeted more than 60 times for horn and antiquities, with many of the criminals suspected to have links to traveller families in one small town in Ireland.
Police believe the theft of the horn provides an entry point into a wider pattern of thefts of Chinese art and antiquities. Figures from the Art Loss Register reveal today that in the five years to 2014 the number of missing Chinese items added its database nearly trebled to more than 2,000 compared with the previous period.
Detectives said monitoring the theft of rhino horn was likely to reveal the wider trade in Oriental art crime. They compared it to tracking the cutting agents used to dilute drugs, which could lead to smuggling gangs.
“They’ve had some rhino horn away on a couple of nice jobs and made some money and wonder what else is out there that’s equally portable,” said Andy Bliss, the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire police and the national lead on heritage crime.
“Criminals will adapt and if they see an opportunity to take Ming and Qing items they will take it. It requires a bit more finesse and a bit more expertise but not too much, as the web enables that research to be done very easily.
“Let’s not over-glamorise this. They’re not sophisticated connoisseurs but they’ve probably got an idea of what they’re looking at.”
Museums have boosted security and taken most of their horn from display while increasing security for their Chinese collections. Fifty museums and zoos across Europe have now submitted samples to a DNA database set up last year to identify the source of any horn seized at borders. Experts hope to provide a one in several thousand match to recovered horn.
“We’re letting the criminals know that this is now traceable,” said Dr Lucy Webster, lead scientist of the Wildlife DNA forensics unit which collects the samples. “There’s still a lot with museums though they have upped their game.”
In 2011 the European police agency Europol identified the threat from Irish organised criminals – known as the Rathkeale Rovers and the Dead Zoo Gang. Rhino horn is highly prized in Vietnam and China for its supposed medicinal qualities, and for criminals it has a higher profit margin than gold or cocaine.
Horn and antiques worth more than £33m have been taken since 2010 in raids across Europe, including significant ones in Biarritz, Bergen and Durham. In one of the biggest raids, jade ornaments worth some £15m were stolen from the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. They included six pieces from the Ming dynasty (14th to 17th centuries) including a carved jade buffalo, and eight pieces from the Qing period (17th to 20th centuries). Most of the property remains unrecovered.
Julian Radcliffe, Art Loss Register’s founder, said: “The publicity surrounding the very high prices paid for some Chinese ceramics in particular has fired the criminal imagination. There’s no question there’s been a significant increases in the theft of Chinese or Oriental items because of the increase in their value.”
China’s burgeoning middle class, and a desire to repatriate what are considered looted items taken during foreign occupations and wars, have turned China into the fastest-growing art market in the world. Legal imports have increased more than 500 per cent over the past decade, topping €1bn (£830m) in 2011.
There are an estimated one million works in more than 2,000 museums around the world sought by the Chinese authorities for repatriation. “Everyone in the international trade knows that once it goes in [to China] it’s never coming out again,” said Dr Clare McAndrew, the founder of Arts Economics.
Criminals already involved in the theft of rhino horn have noticed the higher prices at auction for Asian art and antiquities, and have moved into the trade using established contacts and routes, according to police.
“We are quite fearful for our Chinese collections,” said Vernon Rapley, the head of security at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in a museum podcast. “Criminals clearly have connections in China… We hear of all sorts of tales of counterfeit goods being brought in from China and the need to pay for them, and that objects in our collections could be used for that sort of simplistic transaction.”
A series of police operations has seen dozens of arrests and at least eight convictions. In September last year 19 people were arrested around the country over thefts at three museums – in Durham, Norwich and Cambridge – and an auction house in Sussex. The raids included ones on travellers’ sites and were combined with searches in Rathkeale, in County Limerick.
In the same month, a member of the extended family was arrested in the United States as part of an operation to halt illegal trafficking in rhino horn. Michael Slattery was jailed for 14 months in January and told to pay back $60,000 in fines and forfeitures.
Chinese-linked thefts are significantly down following the operation, police say, but Victorian hunting trophies in private homes remain at risk.A rhino horn was snatched last month at the mansion of the Riverdance star Michael Flatley in North Cork. The raiders severed the horn, worth £164,000 on the black market, from a stuffed rhino’s head at the stately home.
Although the horn is ground down to powder for use in Chinese medicines, buyers prefer it whole to ensure authenticity. The high value of the horn and tightened controls around its availability have led to reports of fake horn hitting the market, including yak’s hoof harvested from the heads of walking sticks, according to police.