New sentencing guidelines for heritage crimes

Posted on: January 14, 2016 by

Next month (February 2016) the new theft guidelines announced by the Sentencing Council last October will come into force. For the first time, the significant harm which can result from crimes like theft of public artworks, stripping of lead from historic churches and the activities of ‘nighthawkers’ is being officially recognized within the English criminal legal system. Courts dealing with these ‘heritage offences’ will have to take into account the special nature of the cultural property concerned when sentencing offenders.

Heritage crime is a significant and growing problem. Churches and other historic buildings suffer thefts and vandalism on a daily basis, but it is generally only those high profile crimes which hit the headlines: In the UK, the theft of a Cezanne from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2000 and more recently, the act of “yellowism” against a £5million Rothko in 2012 at the Tate Modern; internationally, the theft of 13 Old Master paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 (interestingly the subject of an article in today’s Boston Globe, which reports on the somewhat mysterious reduction in sentence of one of the long-time suspects).

Cezanne’s Auvers-Sur-Oise, stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in 2000

Cezanne’s Auvers-Sur-Oise, stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in 2000

The harm caused by these offences is often irreversible and widely felt. While it is generally no problem to repair or replace a smashed window, a stolen television or a ransacked car, no such quick fix is available where the theft, or other crime involves a medieval burial site, an ancient shipwreck or a collection of Old Master paintings.

The new guidelines are not a bolt from the blue. Initiatives spearheaded by Historic England have raised awareness of heritage crime over the past five years and there are signs that this has already started to impact on the courts’ approach. In a number of important cases, judges have acknowledged the significance of the damage to cultural property and sentenced accordingly. The drive to increase understanding continues apace and Historic England’s current campaign to get the public on the look-out for lost post-war public art will hopefully provide a useful boost. The related exhibition (‘Out there: Our Post-War Public Art‘ opening at Somerset House on 3 February) will no doubt be fascinating.

The new guidelines have been welcomed by the sector and certainly signal progress in the fight against heritage crime. It will be interesting to track their practical implementation over the coming months and to see whether they will herald further, and perhaps broader and more far-reaching developments to tackle art crime over time.

Emily Gould is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Art and Law