An important piece of legislation, brought into force around the time of the UK’s accession to the UNESCO 1970 Convention in 2002, has at last been used as the basis for a conviction. The statute, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, sets out an offence for dishonestly dealing in tainted cultural objects. The term ‘tainted’ for our purposes refers to objects that have been removed from buildings, structures or monuments of historical, architectural or archaeological interest. Interestingly, the Act applies regardless of whether the items were removed in the UK or abroad.
This week at Hereford Crown Court, in the west of England, the Act was finally put to good use. Defendant Christopher Cooper had been something of a rampant – though perhaps repentant – heritage thief. Over three years he had moved across the country, targeting churches and stealing statues, paintings, friezes and even several King James bibles. Following his arrest in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to 37 thefts, which included the theft of two 15th century oak panels taken from a rood screen at Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon. The panels have been recovered and are now undergoing extensive conservation.
The defendant was charged with theft under the Theft Act 1968, as well as fraud for selling fakes and replicas of statues, stained glass and coffins, which he offered for sale online, along with the stolen material. But most importantly from a cultural heritage law perspective, he was also charged with dealing in tainted cultural objects under the 2003 Act. He was sentenced to three years in prison on seven charges of theft and three years for dealing in tainted cultural objects, those sentences to run concurrently. He was also sentenced to eight months on two counts of fraud. The sentencing grand total was thus three years and eight months. Certainly nothing to snicker at.
For many years, experts in the field have been wondering why there hadn’t yet been a conviction under the 2003 Act. Were there no relevant dealings to speak of? Had theft of cultural objects declined to nil? Were the police simply overlooking this valuable tool? It is difficult to say for certain, but it is quite possible that in many cases a prosecution under the Theft Act 1968 – something much more familiar to law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Services – was the favoured course of action. And besides, the 2003 Act, unlike the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order of the same year (which only applies to looted Iraqi cultural property), does not help the prosecution with a reverse onus burden. The dealing in cultural objects offence still requires the prosecution to prove ‘dishonesty’ on the part of the defendant, a requirement helpfully removed in the case of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property.
So the 2003 Act has at last shown its teeth, though of course used in tandem with the Theft Act. Will this mark the beginning of a rush of similar prosecutions…? Or will it sit alone in the annals of reported cases? Once again, only time will tell.