by Catherine Schofield Sezgin
Former Detective Sergeant Richard Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad, will be returning to Amelia next summer to teach “Art Policing and Investigation” from August 1 through August 12 at ARCA’s Masters Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies.
Mr. Ellis ran the Art & Antiquities Squad for New Scotland Yard from 1989 until his retirement from the police in 1999. After working for Christie’s fine Art Security Services and Trace recovery services, in 2005 he joined with security and conservation specialists to form the Art Management Group. He is also director of Art Resolve and Art Retrieval International Ltd.
As a specialist art crime investigator both in the police and in the private sector, Mr. Ellis has been involved in many notable recoveries such as ‘The Scream’ stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994, Audobon’s ‘Birds of America’ stolen from the State Library in St. Petersburg, antiquities looted from China and Egypt as well as the recovery of numerous items of art and antiquities stolen from private residences throughout the United Kingdom and abroad including in 2005 silver stolen Stanton Harcourt and in 2006 paintings by Bonnard, Vuillard and Duffy stolen in London.
ARCA blog: Mr. Ellis, how would you describe the scope of your course? And how can students best prepare for your class?
Mr. Ellis: In scope, I have tried to ensure that my course gives the students a clear understanding of the breadth of cultural property crime, the responsibilities of the police/law enforcement nationally and internationally and the legal basis upon which investigations are built. The art market is global and cultural property crime mirrors this in every way, from theft and the disposal of the stolen objects, to fraud and the faking and forging of cultural objects. For a criminal investigation to be successful it is essential that the investigator understands how to project the investigation in to other jurisdictions, how evidence is legally obtained and then presented in courts foreign jurisdiction.
ARCA blog: In your course, you speak about working closely with former smuggler and Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijn. Does he still help the authorities and are you still in contact with him?
Mr. Ellis: I use Michel van Rijn to illustrate not only the importance of "informants" to the criminal investigator, but also the problems that "informants" can create for an investigator and hence the care that must be used when dealing with such individuals. I play an interview that I recorded with Michel in 2004 at the request of the Dutch Government, which was played to an EU conference to illustrate how criminals fabricate provenance and the difficulties that this presents for all those involved in cultural property. I am still in contact with Michel, which provides me with a constant insight in to the darker side of the art market. Michel will of course help the authorities if it is in his interest to do so and this is another reason why I introduce him to the students. Understanding why people become informants is essential to being able to use them and the information that they provide safely and legally and this is another part of the scope of my course. Understanding why people become involved in cultural property crimes, their motives and expectations will assist the investigator in reaching a successful outcome to a case.
ARCA blog: In the past three decades, do you think police agencies are more or less interested in investigating stolen art and antiquities? Do you think there are more resources out there today? What role does the Internet play in investigations today?
Mr. Ellis: The past three decades has been interesting in respect of the response to cultural property crime by the police in many countries. At the start of the 1980's there was little interest in this area of crime with the exception of Italy, who throughout this time have devoted considerable resources to protecting their cultural property and investigating those responsible for the theft of it. In 1984 the art squad at Scotland Yard was actually closed and its 14 detectives were dispersed on to other crime squads. In the USA the FBI had no dedicated team and only in the police departments in New York and Los Angeles was there any recognition that art and antique crime posed a problem. It was largely due to the restructuring of the art market during the 1980's and the rapid increase in prices that this generated that criminals recognised the potential in art crime. The resulting increase in crime forced law enforcement to adjust and review the situation.
By the end of the 1980's I had reformed the art squad at New Scotland Yard, the FBI in New York were handling an increasing number of international requests through one dedicated office and in Los Angeles an art detail was put in place run by a detective Bill Martin who was later appointed to the President's advisory panel on cultural property crime. During the 1990's more countries recognised cultural property crime as a problem and with the end of the cold war and the opening of international borders the trafficking of cultural property crime grew rapidly becoming a major concern.
The introduction of computer systems during this period, which recorded and made accessible information on stolen objects was a major step forward and Interpol has been able to provide a central record of at least the most important stolen cultural property. France, Italy, the USA and a handful of other countries developed their own databases of stolen cultural property supported by dedicated investigators. UNESCO developed a programme of workshops through which it was able to raise awareness of cultural property crime and by utilising the help of specialist police officers such as myself, it delivered a programme designed to assist countries in protecting their cultural heritage.
There followed a number of high profile cases which illustrated how with the cooperation of these dedicated national squads successful prosecutions could be achieved such as the recovery of the Scream and the prosecution of Tokeley Parry and Fred Schultz to name but two of my own cases. However, as we entered the new millennium, other international crimes overtook cultural property crime in importance for law enforcement. Drug trafficking, people trafficking and terrorism now occupy the top three positions and with the global economic crisis financial fraud has also moved above cultural property crime in importance and I fear that we shall see a gradual reduction in the number of specialist officers dedicated to cultural property crimes. This makes the work of ARCA all the more important as the private sector will now be required to handle the many crimes and disputes left untouched by law enforcement and only through some serious academic research to demonstrate the true scale of the problem that cultural property posses will governments and law enforcement agencies be persuaded to direct more of their limited resources to it. The internet offers a fantastic tool for the investigator in terms of information about objects and where they are appearing on the market for sale. It does not however replace the need to actually talk to victims of crime or to interview those in possession of disputed items in order to reach some kind of resolution to a dispute. These are skills that you can only gain by actually doing the job and no amount of internet research will give you those skills.
Finally and in answer to the last part of your first question, "How can students best prepare for your class?" I would suggest that they cover as many art thefts and investigations as they can find in books and on the internet. To keep an open mind on who has committed the crime and not to be influenced by the often ill-informed opinions of the journalists. To read "The Irish Game" by Mathew Hart, which sets out probably the most thoroughly investigated art thefts of a single collection and gives a good insight in to who commits such crimes and how the criminal has arrived at the routes to market available to them for iconic works of art. A topic to be covered in my class.
ARCA blog: Thank you, Mr. Ellis.
The application for the postgraduate program in Art Crime Studies and Cultural Heritage Protection is this Friday on January 21.