An artefact taken from Durham University Oriental Museum

Police praised for museum thefts investigation

Jonathan Knott, 02.03.2016
Series of incidents was treated as organised crime
Antiques crime experts have praised the approach taken by the police in investigating the criminal network that plotted to steal items including rhinoceros horn and Chinese jade artefacts from UK museums and an auction house.

Four members of the gang were convicted at Birmingham Crown Court on Monday, joining ten others found guilty in previous hearings. The earlier convictions could only be reported after the conclusion of the trial on Monday.

The series of incidents, which took place between November 2011 and April 2012, were considered as organised crime rather than being treated in isolation. The offences comprised two thefts and an attempted theft from Durham University Oriental Museum, a robbery at Norwich Castle Museum in Norfolk, another robbery at Gorringes Auction House in East Sussex and a burglary at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The senior investigating officer for the operation, Detective Superintendent Adrian Green from Durham Constabulary, said that the items targeted were worth between £18m and £57m.

18 mostly jade Chinese artefacts taken from the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012, estimated to be worth at least £15m, have not been recovered.

But in other incidents the police were assisted by a string of bungles by the gang. These included dropping a rhinoceros head as they attempted to take it from Norwich Castle Museum, and failing to locate the hiding place of artefacts worth up to £2m taken from Durham’s Oriental Museum. Thieves also took the wrong item from Gorringes Auction House, making off with a cup made of bamboo rather than the more valuable rhinoceros horn.

Vernon Rapley, the director of security at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) who previously led the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit, told Museums Journal: “We applaud the police for conducting an investigation that linked these thefts to a criminal network,” saying that this approach was not usual for incidents of museum theft.

“Very often thefts are simply reported as standalone offences and believed to be one-offs,” he said. “But if you can link the incidents together, then the court has the opportunity to understand the extent of the crime. It paints a true picture of the threat that museums face.”

He added that these convictions underlined the importance of museums sharing security information. “Over and above implementing security standards, museums need to understand what’s happening at the moment, and they can only really do that by being open and sharing information among themselves,” said Rapley.

The V&A coordinates the National Museum Security Group, which includes 900 museums and cultural venues. The organisation has an intranet that allows institutions to exchange information and intelligence securely, and runs conferences and seminars.

The investigation, Operation Griffin, was launched in 2012, led by Durham Constabulary and Cambridgeshire Police and supported by the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chief’s Council.

In a statement, Durham Police said: “Investigations were launched by local police forces and a number of people convicted for their parts in carrying out the thefts. However, it soon became apparent that an organised crime group was planning and commissioning the jobs.”

Donna Yates, a lecturer in antiquities trafficking and art crime at the University of Glasgow, said that the items sought by the gang showed a keen understanding of what would appeal to the Chinese market, saying “It’s obviously easier to sell these objects in China than the UK, and it’s obvious that they were intended to go to China.”

Yates said that it was exciting to see the police approach the thefts as an organised crime, saying: “One of the main advantages is that you can go after the higher level people, who aren’t actually physically doing the theft, but are orchestrating it.”

She added: “It’s often difficult to make organised crime charges stick because of the amount of investigation needed. Clearly the police did a tremendous job. To get these across the board convictions is really quite spectacular. It shows that the police are taking this kind of museum crime absolutely seriously.”

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