June 4, 2020

Revisiting the UK's Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act of 2003

The Torbryan rood screen
This Friday ARCA reviews one of the few successful cases of prosecution using the UK's Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act of 2003.

Christopher Cooper was an unemployed, amateur antique dealer in the United Kingdom, who is known to have targeted unsecured places of worship, stealing a range of ecclesiastic objects, including bibles, crucifixes, Anglo Saxon carvings and even the top and bottom of a stone coffin from St Mary’s Church in Foy in Herefordshire - a heavy relic he pilfered over the course of two separate raids, as the first went unnoticed.  

In addition to stealing from vulnerable religious institutions, Cooper was discovered to have manufactured his own "antiques," passing them off to his customers as genuine, often defaced as historic relics.  Some of the objects he was charged with selling included historic religious statues, stained glass, stone coffins, crosses, baptismal font plugs, and rare bibles. 

Over the course of his three-year crime spree, it was reported that Cooper pocketed from up to £150,000 from the proceeds of his criminal activity, brokering the sale of stolen objects via at least two purportedly unsuspecting individuals, whom he never met face-to-face, as he used a third party for the delivery of the pieces to maintain some semblance of distance from their apparent sale. 

Partial Chronology of events in this case:

September 2011 - September 2014
Posing as an ordinary visitor, Cooper targeted quiet churches throughout England and Wales where his activity would remain largely unnoticed, in some cases even until after his arrest. 

2012 
Entering Coombes Parish Church, in Lancing, Cooper stole a 13th-century Lancing corpus of Jesus Christ which had been fixed to a crucifix 12 feet above the ground. The 10 cm gilded copper figure of Christ, thought to have been crafted in Limoges, France, was first recovered in the churchyard at Coombes Parish Church in 1877, likely the victim of the cultural upheaval that at one point splintered Catholic Europe and spurred a revival of iconoclasm. 

2013 
Cooper hacked a pair of 15th-century decorative oak panels out of the Torbryan rood screen which divides the nave from the altar area of the church at the Holy Trinity church at Torbryan in Devon. These historic panels were one of only a few of the 40 panels which once stretched the width of the church. Like the Lancing corpus, these decorative panels also had survived the iconoclasm of the reformation in the 16th century and were painted with the images of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch.

1535 Myles Coverdale Bible:
The First Bible Printed in the English
This same year, Cooper also offered a rare Coverdale bible to an unnamed collector for £18,000, apparently before he had time to steal the object, or perhaps never intending to send anything at all. Concerned that the object purchased and paid for had not been sent, the buyer informed the Metropolitan Police and filed a report with the art and antiques unit.     

Around this same period, the Metropolitan Police received information from HM Revenue and Customs relating to the illegal importation of a stuffed gorilla's head by an individual in South London, an object subject to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As a result of their subsequent search of that individual's property, a number of ecclesiastic objects were recovered, including the two oak church panels which had been stolen from Holy Trinity Church in Devon, as well as a heart stone from another religious institution. 

When questioned by the police, the buyer of the gorilla head and religious panels admitted that he had bought ecclesiastic items online from a man from Herefordshire.  Based on these accumulative leads, a nationwide police initiative, into the organised theft and black market trade of religious and church artifacts in England and Wales, code-named "Icarus," began.

January 2015
Eighteen months later, the investigation "Icarus" which brought in the West Mercia Police, is headed up by Detective Inspector Martyn Barnes, with the support of the Met's Art and Antiques unit in London. 

The West Mercia Police arrest Cooper under suspicion of a series of church thefts carried out in a number of areas including: in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Ross on Wye, Ledbury, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Brecon, south and north Wales, Warwick, Cirencester, Kent, Suffolk, and Oxfordshire Sussex, Essex, and Swindon. While not originally cooperative, police recovered a number of stolen objects found in Cooper's possession, including historic stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass, and first edition King James Bibles which Cooper had stolen from churches across Wales, replacing them with modern editions. 

While conducting a search of his property, police also recovered a notebook that was found to contain a list of churches and coding used in documentation of his crime spree. Perhaps realising he had been undone, Cooper eventually cooperated with law enforcement, and drew a sketch of the 13th-century Lancing corpus, pinpointing Coombes Church on a road map as the site where he stole the cross ornament. 

Shortly thereafter Cooper was initially charged with theft under the Theft Act 1968, as well as fraud, for selling fakes and stolen property online. Later he was charged via the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 which is reserved for the acquisition of cultural property and makes it an offense to acquire, dispose of, import or export 'tainted' cultural objects, or agree or arrange to do so; and for connected purposes. 

Given his initial cooperation in identifying sites where he had stolen objects, Cooper was released on bail on his own recognizance until September 2015. 

6 May 2016 
Cooper pled guilty to seven charges of theft, two charges of fraud and one charge of dealing in tainted cultural items at Hereford Crown Court. In total, he admitted to 37 thefts from churches throughout England and Wales, 30 of which he asked the Court to be taken into consideration (TIC). 

Cooper was sentenced to three years in prison for dealing in tainted antiquities, for each of seven charges of theft, set to run concurrently. Cooper was also given an additional eight months imprisonment for the two charges of fraud.   In total, he was scheduled to spend just three years and seven months in prison. 

As part of his sentencing, Cooper was also issued with a POCA (Proceeds of Crime Act) order, which means he has to repay the amount of money owed to his duped clients when he is able to do so.

Christopher Cooper's sentencing made West Mercia Police the first UK police force in the country to secure a conviction using the very carefully worded Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.  Yet he was the only individual charged for his involvement in this criminal activity.  None of the purchasers, who willingly purchased material from him without concern for the object's origins, were ever publically revealed.

On the books, it has been difficult to convict art thieves and their collaborators in the UK of dealing in tainted cultural objects under the special-focused 2003 act. Culprits directly involved in a theft are more often charged using the broader charge of theft. 

Art crime offenses such as handling stolen good, in both cases require proof of dishonestly, a technicality that does not encourage suspect resellers and colluding buyers to ask probing questions as part of their due diligence process when acquiring cultural objects that likely have an illicit pedigree.  This need for plausible deniability serves to disincentivise buyers from probing too deeply, when seeking to establish the legitimacy of a purchase, as accumulating too much evidence, which could be used to establish dishonesty or collusion in a crime and earmark them as known handlers of stolen goods, could hold these individuals accountable, while a simpler "I didn't know" often makes it more difficult for law enforcement to prove coinvolvement, and to make charges stick.

By Lynda Albertson



Sources used for this article.

Cahal Milmo. 2016. ‘How a Gorilla Skull Helped Snare Britain’s Most Prolific Church Thief’. News. INews - JPIMedia Publications Ltd. 13 May 2016. https://inews.co.uk/news/prolific-church-thief-generation-finally-jailed-538372.

Clarke, Paul J. 2016. ‘Minutes Annual Meeting 17th May 2016 – Peterchurch Parish Council’. https://peterchurchparishcouncil.org.uk/minutes-annual-meeting-17th-may-2016/.

Connell, James. 2016. ‘CRIME FILES: Prolific Church Raider Ends up behind Bars’. Malvern Gazette, 10 May 2016. https://www.malverngazette.co.uk/news/18438621.crime-files-prolific-church-raider-ends-behind-bars/.

Herman, Alexander. 2016. ‘Conviction at Last under 2003 Act’. Blog. Institute of Art and Law (blog). 11 May 2016. https://ial.uk.com/1448-2/.

Morris, Steven. 2016. ‘Antique Dealer Who Plundered Churches for Profit Jailed | UK News | The Guardian’. 10 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/may/10/antique-dealer-plundered-churches-for-profit-jailed-christopher-cooper.
West Mercia Police. 2015. ‘West Mercia Police - Images Releases of Church Items Recovered in Operation Icarus’. June 2015. https://www.westmercia.police.uk/OperationIcarus.

Morris, Steven, and Maev Kennedy. 2015. ‘Stolen 15th-Century Torbryan Church Icons Recovered by Police’. The Guardian, 19 May 2015, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/19/stolen-15th-century-torbryan-church-icons-recovered-by-police.

Oldham, Jeanette.. 2016. ‘Church Raider Jailed after Stealing Priceless Relics, Including Ancient COFFIN - Birmingham Live’. 6 May 2016. https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/church-raider-jailed-after-stealing-11295721.

Oldham, Jeanette. 2016. ‘Crooked Antiques Dealer Jailed for Three Years for Stealing Priceless Relics from Churches’. Coventry Telegraph, 9 May 2016. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/crooked-antiques-dealer-jailed-three-11305398.

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