Report on Art Crime Workshop at QMUL

Posted on: June 22, 2016 by

Yesterday’s workshop on art crime at Queen Mary, University of London, which we mentioned on the blog last week, was a fascinating event, providing much food for thought. The workshop (part of an AHRC-funded series) focussed mainly on art theft, seeking to answer key questions such as: what is the prevalence of art theft internationally? Who are the principle participants? What is being done to combat the problem, both in terms of legal responses and practical security measures? And moreover, what more needs to be done?

Whilst the speakers and topics covered huge ground, both geographically and in terms of discipline and perspective, some common themes cropped up time and time again. The difficulty of categorising and reporting art crime was highlighted by many presenters including professionals from INTERPOL and national organisations for cultural heritage protection from Italy and Germany, as well as academics from Australia. The crucial role of databases in facilitating the reporting – and subsequent location – of stolen works of art was a constant theme. These need to be sophisticated, searchable and consistently populated; and the hope is that in time they will be capable of talking to each other, though participants felt that more work may be required before this is achieved.

The limited capacity of law enforcement agencies dedicated to combatting art crime was also a matter of concern. A comment by the Captain of the Italian Carabinieri department for the protection of cultural heritage that he had a staff of only 250, “not so many”, evoked a twitter of incredulity/frustration amongst participants from other nations where such dedicated staff number less than a handful, or don’t exist at all.

Other threats to art and antiquities which speakers and participants discussed included illegal excavations (particularly from Syria, Iraq and other war torn nations), attacks on, and theft from places of worship and the growing internet market for illicit trade in art and antiquities.

Enough of the doom and gloom, however! We were all pleased to hear more about the imminent (though somewhat overdue, some might say) ratification of the Hague Convention by the UK through the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill which had its second reading in the House of Lords on 6th June.  This should add to the growing body of legislative armoury the UK courts will have at their disposal to combat some aspects of art crime. A talk about the India Pride Project buoyed us up further. This is an extremely impressive initiative which engages the public, mainly through social media, to ‘bring home our Gods’, aiming to restitute cultural property removed illegally from India.

Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of the day was the emergence of a new network of hugely knowledgeable and dedicated individuals from an enormous range of disciplines and countries but with a common passion to address head on the issue of art crime. We look forward to the next workshops in the series and to seeing how the network develops.