Combating heritage crime: recent developments in the UK and around the globe

Posted on: July 31, 2017 by

Rarely a day goes by, it seems, without another concerning and saddening story about cultural heritage destruction. Whether it is the devastation of ancient sites in war-ravaged states such as Syria, Libya or Yemen or the ruin of yet another village church in the UK through lead theft, the loss is felt far and wide, and the heart sinks once again.

Photo By West Midlands Police, CC via Wikimedia Commons

It is not all doom and gloom, however. IAL’s recent participation in a number of seminars and events touching on these matters has highlighted some of the crucial work being undertaken, both within the UK and globally, to combat heritage crime. While there is no denying that threats to cultural property are dangerous and arguably increasing, there are definite signs that awareness of the issues is growing, and in response, the tools available to address the problem are gathering strength.

These tools straddle numerous disciplines: the law, military practice, technology and community engagement to name but a few. In all of these areas, positive developments are in evidence both in the UK and internationally over recent months and years.

In this post, we’ll be looking at developments in the UK, with discussion of international measures to follow in a forthcoming entry.

So, to start with the law, we discussed in a recent blog post the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act which received Royal Assent earlier this year and is expected to come into force some time in the autumn. The Act enables the UK to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and creates a new offence of dealing in cultural property unlawfully exported from an occupied territory. While it isn’t expected to trigger a flurry of prosecutions (the Government’s Impact Assessment anticipated just one in 30 years) it provides a salutary reminder to those involved in the antiquities trade of the crucial importance of checking provenance and the need to investigate any potential ‘red flags’.

Another aspect of the UK’s ratification of the Hague Convention is the imminent creation of a specialist cultural protection unit within the British Armed Forces. The matter was discussed during the Parliamentary debates about the Act, and it is anticipated that a modern-day unit of ten to twenty ‘monuments men and women’ will be recruited.

Legal tools, of course, count for little unless supported by the capacity and the will to enforce them. The strong arm of the law has been brought to bear in a number of notable convictions in the UK in recent years. 2016 saw the first conviction under the Dealing in Cultural Offences Act 2003, and in the two preceding years, successful prosecutions were brought following investigations by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency into illegal dealings with shipwrecks and associated artefacts. The inclusion of ‘damage to heritage assets’ as a factor for consideration in the sentencing of certain theft offences (effective from February 2016) signalled another important step in the right direction.

Successful enforcement requires more than a solid legal basis and capacity, however. It also depends upon developing the technology to keep one step ahead of the perpetrators of heritage crime. Significant strides in this regard have been taken over the past few years. The use of forensic marking techniques to enable identification of stolen objects is becoming more common, and is recommended, for example, on church rooves which are under constant threat from metal thieves.

The application of modern technologies isn’t always required, though. Sometimes, the old-fashioned use of eyes and ears and traditional community channels can work quite as well. The establishment of ‘Heritage Watch’ groups in local communities in the UK over the past few years is a heartening development. These groups involve local volunteers helping to develop and implement heritage crime prevention strategies within their own communities.

The methodologies employed in the UK in the fight against heritage crime are also in evidence, to a greater or lesser degree, the world over. As noted above, keep your eyes peeled for our thoughts on developments outside the UK in another blog entry coming soon.