The London-based ‘Art Squad’, which was established in 1969, patrols the second largest market in cultural objects in the world. Up to £200 million of faked artifacts and pictures are sold in the UK every year, with the capital acting as the centre of this illicit trade. The global industry in looted art is worth an estimated £4 billion a year, and is second only to the arms and drugs industries.
And yet while Italy’s art squad, for example, boasts 250 policemen, London’s counterpart consists of a paltry four officers and three civilians. The forthcoming reduction of the budget of an already cash-strapped unit, and proposed measures to make up the deficit with sponsorship, has led to claims of police privatisation. A further plan to draft in civilian ‘special constables’ has also raised questions of policing on the cheap.
“The unit does a commendable job on very little resources as it is, but the last thing they should be doing is cutting back on their budget,” says Mark Dodgson, chairman of the British Antique Dealers’ Association. “It is wholly inappropriate. If anything, they should be putting more money in. Antique dealers pay taxes for the police, so surely their businesses deserve the right to have a proper policing tailored to their needs?”
At the root of the problem is a question of priorities. In this day and age of terrorism, drug abuse and prevalent street crime, the Government-funded Met sees its duty as putting resources into frontline policing and visible aspects of law and order, as opposed to monitoring the comparatively haughty world of arts and antiques.
As Neil Brodie, of the McDonald Institute of Archaeology, says: “Part of the problem is in accepting that the illegal trade in antiquities is a criminal enterprise. It is no longer a victimless crime, but the majority of the wrongdoing occurs on the other side of the world. Try explaining this to the average British tax payer.”
The annual staffing costs of the squad are a relatively low £300,000 and the Met hopes to achieve 50 per cent of this through private sector sponsorship by April 2008.
A spokesman for the Specialist Crime Unit, which runs the squad, says seeking ‘business arrangements’ from within the art industry is a means of continuing and enhancing police response in lower priority areas. “We hope that sponsorship will not just support the current operational structure but allow for growth.”
This is very much disputed by Dick Ellis, a private art investigator who left the squad in 1999 after 30 years with the Met. Ellis claims that a huge question mark now hangs above the squad and fears that it may even be disbanded. The loss of such an important unit in a city where, in the opening week this February, more than £360 million was spent on art, is potentially far-reaching.
“In my experience there is ample evidence to suggest that art theft is used to fund other areas of criminality,” says Ellis. “By reducing the effectively of the squad they will be providing criminals the opportunity to utilise the London market in an unfettered way. People will be making financial gains and using the money in other criminal areas, such as drugs and terrorism.” That is to say, crimes that are deemed high priority for the police force.
The leading expert in this field is Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a New York-based district attorney and former US marine who now runs his own art squad in the States. While serving in Iraq, Bogdanos, who has an MA in Classics from Colombia University, began and led the international investigation into the looting of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, resulting in the recovery of more than 5,400 antiquities in eight countries.
Just as the Taliban in Afghanistan have learnt to fund their activities through the opium trade, Bogdanos argues that insurgents in Iraq, the cradle of civilisation, have discovered a new source of income: antiquities dug out of the ground from the nation’s 10,000 poorly guarded archaeological sites and sold on the black market.
“For anyone to deny the link between antiquity trafficking and terrorism defies all the evidence,” says Bogdanos, who, during his investigation, discovered hoards of vases, cylinder seals and statuettes alongside weapons and ammunition in underground bunkers.
The truth, he argues, is that many stolen antiquities end up in the homes of wealthy western collectors, despite the wider implications. “The cosy cabal of academics, dealers and collectors who turn a blind eye to the illicit trade is, in effect, supporting the insurgents who are killing our troops in Iraq.”
While Bogdanos agrees that counter terrorism, narcotics, street crime and human trafficking are rightly the four main priorities for police forces around the world, his experience shows that art crime is often intricately linked with the above and should be included on the list, “right after the other four.”
Angry that art crime is under-discussed and viewed as a mere afterthought, Bogdanos says the Met’s decision to slash the squad’s budget and introduce sponsorship “beggars credulity”. “The slippery slope to private financing of the police will make them pure mercenaries,” he stresses. Closer to home, James Ede, head of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, does not mince his words: “It’s a ludicrous idea. Privatising the police is outrageous.”
These strong accusations of potential privatisation come after Stephen House, the Met’s assistant commissioner, admitted the squad was looking into gaining sponsorship from relevant industries from within the art world. The big auction houses of Bonhams, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are rumoured to be at the top of the pile.
The response to such a predicament is understandably stormy: “Accepting sponsorship money from elements of the trade industry could very well lead to a conflict of interest,” says Ellis; “With private finance, how can you not – N-O-T – descend into the abyss of conflict of interest?” stresses Bogdanos; “Wake up and smell the coffee! There is a huge conflict of interest here,” shouts Michel van Rijn, an art crime informant based in London.
Lord Howarth, the former Labour arts minister, harrumphed on the BBC’s Question Time last week that the idea was “an open invitation to corruption”. The clear issue at stake is how the squad will maintain its independence with outside influence. Simply put by Bogdanos: “If a man serves two masters, who does he answer to?” Which is a pertinent point when one of the masters is meant to be the controller of the one stumping up the cash.
Brodie, whose own archaeological institute in Cambridge has suffered from a drying up of governmental cash, concurs: “It’s madness really. There would certainly be a price to pay. Even if nothing untoward happens, people would expect the worst which would mean the credibility of the squad goes.”
Such a move would risk seeing the squad following the same path as the Art Loss Register, the national database of stolen art, which is part owned by the top auction houses, a fact which elicits many a groan from industry insiders. “If the same thing happens with the squad then London will turn into a paradise for looters,” predicts van Rijn who, a former millionaire smuggler himself, appears to know what he’s talking about.
Any conflict of interest, real or apparent, would be without doubt enormously detrimental to the Met. Ede even goes as far as to joke: “Would you suggest that second-hand car dealers pay for DVLA checks for all stolen cars on the second-hand market? Do we really want a Christie’s Fine Art Squad? Anything could happen through the backdoor, it’s completely outrageous. They will be accused of buying the fuzz.”
Understandably, the Met is quick to refute any claims of foul play. A spokesman for the squad said: “Questioning the police’s independence is a slur on our integrity. We’re not doing anything that’s not prohibited (sic). These business arrangements are keenly supported by the Home Office as part of a public/private sector partnership and has a successful precedent in several other areas of police activity.”
But the Home Office denies any involvement in the budget cut, stressing that the Met has received substantial and sustained increases in funding under this Government and that it was their choice to decide how to use the resources allowed. Without elaborating on the sensitive nature of this particular case, a Home Office spokeswoman added: “Sponsorship can be a useful additional resource for forces.”
Despite this diplomatic stance, many argue, however, that the present Government is not doing enough to tackle art crime. In 2000, a report produced by the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel made for Lord Howarth underlined a set of recommendations for the on-going struggle. Much legislation has since followed, but very few of the recommendations – such as “the need for additional resources” for the art squad – have been implemented.
As the Met continues to cut costs in perceived low priority areas, it seems feasible that the Home Office might exert some pressure, or at least provide guidelines. “On the one hand, the Government warrants legislation, but when it comes to sticking the money up, it’s very different,” says Ede. The implication is that laws will only work if the resources are there; instead, they are being taken away.
So, what future, if any, is there for the Arts and Antiques Unit? One area of the recent shake-up to receive a more balanced opinion is that of the use special constables. Dubbed ArtBEAT, the project involves recruiting figures from the art world, many sponsored by their employers, to utilise their expert skills in the fight against cultural property crime in London. Once trained, the volunteers will work as uniformed officers with full police powers for 200 hours a year. A target of 14 constables trained by April has been set.
Ellis regards the special constables as a poor replacement for serious investigation officers, a “move which will be seen by the art market and heritage community as policing on the cheap”. The Home Office, who openly support such schemes, refutes this – and has surprise support from Bogdanos. Who in their right mind would turn down such expert help? asks the Greek American.
But the only way for ArtBEAT to be a success, he argues, is if it functions alongside a strengthened art squad, and not the present watered-down model. “It’s a good idea, but only in conjunction with, and contributing to, a robust Arts and Antiques Unit.”
Grappling for a solution, Bogdanos is as frank as he is idealistic: “They should just find the money. Not from sponsorship, from Government. This whole story strikes me as so much pap. Ruling a country is about convincing the electorate of the correctness of a particular course of action. I want a Winston Churchill but for arts and antiquities. It belongs on the list.”
Perhaps, in the meantime, sponsorship is the only option – providing the squad remains impartial. “Of course, if Marks & Spencer came in with an offer then it would be very different,” concludes Ellis, with a modicum of airy hope.