Art Crime – villains and victims

Posted on: March 2, 2016 by

News broke this week that fourteen men have been convicted of plotting to steal artefacts from UK museums estimated to be worth up to £57 million. After a four-year police operation, the final four defendants – the ‘generals’ of the gang – were brought to justice at Birmingham Crown Court on Monday.

They’ll be sentenced in early April, and it will be interesting to see what impact the new Sentencing Guidelines for Theft Offences (discussed in our post in January) will have on the outcome. As of 1st February, courts need to take into account the particular harm resulting from damage to heritage assets in sentencing offenders – possibly a case of bad timing for the gang members.

The circumstances of the case got me thinking more widely about heritage crime – especially the theft of art and antiquities, and how certain themes seem to pervade many different areas of this shady world.

I was thinking in particular about the complexity of many of the organised criminal gangs operating in the art market, and the distance between those at the top, the ‘generals’ calling the shots, and those doing the dirty work, who are frequently exploited and desperate. In this case, the group behind the plot hired a separate gang to carry out the raids – by all accounts, a less than successful decision, given that the perpetrators managed to drop one of the targeted artefacts during the attempted theft and to lose the loot from another!

While it’s a very different situation, of course, it’s often the case that those involved in mass looting are suffering extreme deprivation and the devastation of poverty and armed conflict. In some cases they might be obeying orders of military leaders in carrying out acts of destruction and in others they might be involved in opportunistic looting in a fight for survival. In Mali, for instance, where it has been estimated that possibly up to 80-90% of archaeological sites have been plundered in some areas, those involved in carrying out ‘subsistence digging’ as it has been tagged, are generally communities living in crushing poverty who receive a tiny per centage of the final price of an artefact (the rest being pocketed by smugglers, handlers and dealers).

Interestingly, an alleged Malian jihadi leader, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, was due to be brought before the International Criminal Court yesterday, (1st March) accused of war crimes for ordering the demolition of historic monuments in Timbuktu. If the case proceeds to full trial we might learn more about the mechanics of destruction and looting in conflict situations – likely to be a harrowing and saddening read. War-torn Syria, too, is rarely out of the headlines on this issue at the moment. Here also, looting is most probably driven by the need to feed a family for another few days for many who get involved at ground level.

In our seminar this coming Saturday (the second of our current Diploma in Art Profession Law and Ethics series) we’ll be taking a look at some of the villains and victims of the world of art crime. We look forward to lively discussion with our students on these thought-provoking and topical issues.