September 11, 2013

Dick Ellis, ARCA Lecturer and founder of Scotland Yard's Art & Antiquities Squad, on arrests of travellers for thefts of museums and auction houses

Dick Ellis, ARCA Lecturer, formerly of Scotland Yard
When media reports announced that police had arrested suspects for a series of art-related thefts, ARCA blog turned to Richard Ellis, ARCA Lecturer and founder of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiquity Squad, for his perspective: 
The arrest of two men in Essex was a part of a joint police operation which saw a total of 17 men and 2 women arrested across the UK and Ireland, following a series of thefts at museums and auction houses in which ancient Chinese objects, Rhino horns and other works of art and antiques valued in excess of £20 million were stolen during the course of 2012. 
Police from 26 forces including An Garda Siochana in Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and members of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) raided houses and traveller camps in London, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Sussex, The West Midlands, Nottingham, Belfast, Cork and in Rathkeale near Limerick, the home of the Irish Traveller community. 
They are reported to have seized a large amount of unspecified property although it is not known whether this includes any of the rare Chinese jade carvings stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for which crime, four people were convicted earlier this year including a 15 year old boy. All were from the traveller community, members of whom have been responsible for a series of the major art and antique robberies committed in the UK in recent years. 
Not for the first time, the UK police were forced to create a cross border task force to investigate a series of crimes committed by travellers against public and private collections of art and antiques. The crimes themselves demonstrate how criminals follow trends in various markets, including the art market, and the explosion in value of Chinese artefacts following the re-emergence of the Chinese art market did not go unnoticed. Likewise, the high prices offered for Rhino horn in the Far East attracted the attention of criminals who realised that it was easier and safer to steal the horns from exhibits in museums rather than poach the horns from live animals in Africa. 
Travellers have been arrested in a number of European countries in connection with the theft of horns from museums, and Austria was recently seeking the extradition of one leading Traveller from Rathkeale. The scale of these crimes resulted in many institutions replacing the horns with replicas to discourage thefts, however in the case of the Norwich museum in Norfolk, the birthplace of Admiral Lord Nelson, when the burglars were unable to steal the Rhino horn they turned their attentions to other exhibits and stole some Nelsonian objects including a mourning ring worn by a member of Nelson's family following his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. 
These crimes and how they and other art thefts are inspired by art market trends will be discussed in detail at the "Art Crime" Seminar to be held in Dallas Texas between the 14th - 18th October 2013 at the SMU Meadows School of the Arts at which I and former FBI Special Agent Virginia Curry will be talking. For further information about this course contact Abigail Smith at 214 768 3425 or abigails@smu.edu or visit http://mcs.smu.edu/calender/event/world-art-and-fine-art-crime.

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