Figures from the Office for National Statistics for 2013 show that crime against households and adults in England and Wales dropped by 15% compared to 2012. However, it is unclear if there has been a reduction in heritage crime in the same period.
Mark Harrison, national policing and crime adviser for English Heritage, says he thinks there has been an increase in the likelihood of heritage crime being reported. He says that so far this year he has been involved with 56 cases, compared with 430 cases between March 2010 and December 2013.
Vernon Rapley, head of security at the Victoria and Albert Museum and leader of the National Museum Security Group (NMSG), says the exact number of heritage crimes is still unknown. He adds that there is “massive under-reporting”, either because people feel the police are powerless to do anything or because the crime is not reported specifically as cultural property or heritage crime.
Detective chief inspector Stuart Orton of the Association of Chief Police Officers Heritage and Cultural Property Crime Working Group says: “It is not simple. Heritage crime covers so many different types of crime, so it is difficult to measure across 43 police forces [in England and Wales].”
But he adds that the consistency and accuracy of reporting and recording heritage crime has come a long way in the past four years, and is still improving.
Anecdotally, theft from collections appears to be falling. William Brown, national security adviser at Arts Council England, says there were fewer than five incidents of theft of collections from museums last year across the UK, and only one case this year, when several Olympic medals were stolen from Dumfries Museum.
Brown attributes the drop to several high-profile arrests last year. Thirty offenders were charged for thefts from the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, Norwich Castle Museum and Durham Oriental Museum.
Brown says that although there is no evidence to prove it, the feeling is that the high profile of those cases has had a deterrent effect.
Rapley adds that although funding cuts to museums have some impact on security, the point of organisations such as the NMSG is to enable museums to work more closely and to concentrate resources and share information.
The International Council of Museums’ International Observatory has launched a website dedicated to centralising and disseminating resources relating to the illicit trade in cultural goods.
Resources available on the website include international legal and criminal case studies produced by sector experts, news of recent thefts and returns, and details of conferences and training programmes.
The International Observatory was launched in January 2013. In addition to the website, which was launched in April, it will publish a global report in 2015 with a range of case studies, statistics and analysis on the illicit trade in cultural goods.