Series 1, episode 3
Vernon Rapley, Head of Security and Visitor Services at the V&A, and Andy Bliss, the top-ranking police officer in London (Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Constabulary) reveal how museums work with the police to attempt to stop art theft. This includes sharing information on current art theft trends to work towards reducing risk, and in the rare case of a successful theft, recover stolen artefacts for the public.
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast: bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about art theft. Nothing is worse for a museum than to have an object from its collection stolen, and we do everything we can do prevent that from happening. But if you read the papers you’ll know that museums are sometimes victimised by criminals. How do we stop it? And what do we do to recover an object if the unthinkable should happen? Here to discuss art theft are: Vernon Rapley, our Head of Security and Visitor services at the V&A and Andy Bliss, Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Constabulary since June 2011. Chief Constable Bliss is also the National Police lead for heritage crime and I understand a keen archaeologist. So Andy, I thought we might start by just talking about your personal interest in the subject as well as your professional responsibilities.
AB: Sure. I’ve always had a passion for history and, had the great privilege of reading archaeology and history at Durham University. I kind of wanted to get into archaeology but jobs are very hard to find in archaeology or certainly were when I left university. So, I looked round for something that would use my skills and, I guess archaeology is investigating things that happened a long time ago. Being a detective which is what I became is investigating crime generally that happened very recently but there’s a kind of similarity. And here I am, just over thirty years on since leaving university, now a police chief, but kind of partly come back to where I started which is where my interest in heritage crime stems from.
GA: Right, so they’re both kinds of forensic disciplines.
AB: Forensic, and a quest for the truth and all that sort of thing – investigations, yep.
GA: Vernon, we don’t really have much in the way of archaeological collections at the V&A - our colleagues at the British Museum and other institutions look after that kind of material - but certainly art theft, which is a kind of heritage crime, is something that we’re very concerned with. Can you say just a little bit in general about what the particular nature of art theft is as a species of criminal activity?
VR: Well art theft from a museum of course differs greatly from other forms of art theft and has a huge impact on our heritage, our cultural heritage. it takes many different forms but the fact that it’s archaeological or it’s artistic or it’s design actually probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference from my experience. My experience is that criminals target an object because of either the value or because of the saleability, and their desire to further other criminal activity. So, for example at the moment, we are quite fearful of our Chinese collections. Criminals clearly have connections in China, it’s not just that the market is emerging there, it’s also that there are criminal connections. We hear all sorts of tales of counterfeit goods being brought in from China and the need to pay for them and that objects in our collections could be used for that sort of simplistic transaction and so, we permanently need to look at our security and look at what the threats are. And that’s where I’m really interested to work with the police because without being able to identify the threats that we face at this moment, we can’t put correct measures in place to try and mitigate them.
GA: Andy, Vernon mentioned that there’s an increased risk at the moment to Chinese objects in museums. I wonder if you could say a little bit about why we think that’s the case.
AB: Well, it’s difficult to speculate but there certainly does appear to be that sort of trend. A number of issues: one... two incidents in fact, last year affecting major UK museums. One at the Oriental museum in Durham, and another at the very well known Fitzwilliam museum, a fabulous museum in Cambridge, where it would appear that criminals targeted objects, vases of the Qing dynasty I think primarily, worth multiple millions of pounds. jJst a couple of cases where there does seem to be a trend targeting those sort or items, not just in the UK but I think internationally. And it is a particular trend that we in law enforcement working with museums etc are very concerned about at the moment. So it’s just one example that perhaps illustrates that.
GA: So that’s quite interesting that there are trends in art theft that you need to keep track of and I suppose that means there’s an intelligence need to know what’s coming and what to be prepared for.
VR: Well absolutely, yes, and we need to learn both from ourselves, and from other museums. We can see what’s happening and who’s up to what from the police and from other sources of intelligence as well. Looking also at patterns that emerge in other areas of criminality affects what happens in museums. The fact that art dealers and auction houses suffer particular thefts or even during residential burglaries that burglars are selecting certain items all gives us a clue, an indication of what’s wanted by criminals at the moment and where our real risks lie.
GA: So Andy, maybe we could take a big picture look at this. How does art theft fit into the broader pattern of criminal activity that you’re keeping track of and trying to prevent?
AB: Well Vernon’s absolutely right, it’s a part of overall criminality and a lot of it is driven now by not just the UK economy but also the world economy, increasingly so. And of course with the new world of the world wide web, ‘cyber crime’ many of your listeners will have heard of, of course organised criminals particularly use all those techniques but some of them specialise in heritage crime, antique art theft – those sort of areas. So in a sense I think it’s fair to say, as you’d expect, that heritage crime is a microcosm of overall criminality and as Vernon says, it mirrors those trends.
GA: Heritage crime is also distinctive in the sense that it gets a lot of press attention, and there’s a great deal of public interest of course in this subject, a great deal of public interest in the collections and a great deal of interest when something is taken. Does that change your job when it comes to looking after art theft and other cases of heritage crime?
AB: I think often it can really help us because, certainly in policing enforcement terms it means we can get publicity and so often it’s the public who in all walks of life, help us to solve crimes. So, it can help. But that said, you know, criminals are also exploiting the web and I mentioned the web a moment ago, so they will use that often to do their research. Fifteen or twenty years ago they couldn’t do that. So it’s a two edged sword but certainly in terms of the publicity you’re absolutely right, you know, art and heritage theft gets massive profile; it’s very visual, dare I say it’s seen by some people as a little bit glamorous. It’s not glamorous. It’s crime, it’s theft, it’s pernicious and it’s bad.
GA: So how did you actually look after this subject within the overall police force? Do you have specialist police officers who look after it? How is it treated within the overall complexion of what you’re doing?
AB: Some forces do have specialist officers - of course some of your listeners will have heard of the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Squad - other forces don’t. One of the things I’m really keen to do as the lead Chief Officer for UK police forces is try and make sure that in every force there’s at least one specialist, a point of contact. But often for museums, libraries, for heritage venues, it will be their local beat officer who first perhaps takes a report of crime and who can help work with the museum or the venue to prevent crime, but it’s making sure that those officers have got an expert or at least someone who has goes some knowledge of who to speak to available. So that’s what we’re trying to create, a network of experts across the country. Policing experts but with some knowledge of heritage crime.
GA: Vernon, you have a background in policing yourself.
VR: I used to head the art and antiques squad at Scotland Yard and in fact did the last training course for force officers. They were known in the day as ‘due diligence officers’ and that was very much an old term which I think is outdated. I think the new initiative to train people and to embrace museum crime and art crime and heritage crime together in one subject and to draw those links - I believe Andy’s got a new group, this heritage crime working group together and I think it’s really important for us, now, that we develop this. it’s become so much more of an issue. I mean, It’s been discussed for years back to 1970, you know, we’ve been discussing cultural property crime, heritage crime, but this is the first time that we’ve really seen - under Andy’s leadership - the police taking a firm grasp of this and, and offering to lead it. And I think it’s a really interesting initiative.
GA: So maybe you could describe a little bit first about what you see the need as being, Vernon, from a museum perspective. Because obviously there’s change in the air – we’ll get to that in a minute - but what do you think the problem was?
VR: it’s a lack of coordination, it’s a lack of sharing information, you know, there are various groups in London, there is now national museum security groups but it’s tying everybody in: archaeological sites, historic houses, stately homes, to identify all of these risks. It’s very much a national issue and it’s dealt with, or has been historically dealt with, differently by each force. It’s not a London issue. Theft isn’t a London issue. London’s the market maybe, for art that’s stolen for one of the markets, but actually it affects the counties, more and more. Very big thefts back in 2005 and six with huge losses to country houses and provincial museums and yet no specialist officers even trained as a point of contact within those forces. So this is really a very significant step forward. To protect maybe not so much the V&A; being in London we do we have the Art and Antiques squad and we’ve had them since 1968. But, you know, our sister organisations are around the country and our interests when we loan objects to provincial museums, they’re very much at risk.
GA: Because of course we’re in a network of museums who are often looking after our objects.
VR: We loan thousands of objects throughout the UK and abroad and we need to look after those objects just as well as we look after them when they’re in our South Kensington site.
GA: So Andy, maybe you could just walk us through what the changes you envision will be. How are we approaching the subject now in a way that perhaps we weren’t ten years ago?
AB: Well I think by setting up the working group, it involves police officers, Vernon is going to be sitting in on the group representatives from English Heritage... a range of different organisations. Some of whom will never have sat in the room before together; I think make the whole approach that much stronger. ‘Cause all my experience in policing, and law enforcement is that getting experts, police officers in the room together talking, identifying what the issues are is really important. And we’ve commissioned a bit of an analysis to the first piece of work commissioned by the group to identify what the current trends and problems are. The key thing though is that it doesn’t just become a taking shop, that we actually translate that into action. And what I want to make sure is that we reinvigorate what did exist a few years ago but needs to be brought up to date which is the heritage crime liaison officer group, right across the country. So that every force has got at least one specialist police officer who people can turn to for advice and expertise and a link in with the experts – people like Vernon, archaeologists, etc. Beyond that, I think what’s really key is that we try to engage our neighbouring policing officers. Every force in the country has neighbourhood policing officers, local bobbies, walking round their beats in uniform. Many of them have a great interest in history and culture in any case, but it’s really making sure that they understand the sort of assets that are on their local area and are making regular contact with museums, archaeological sites, different venues, because that can be part of the protection and the security for those venues but also something does go wrong, they’re often the first port of call.
GA: Can we talk a little bit about that issue? When something does go wrong, what’s the protocol when a museum – let’s say the V&A – were, heaven forbid, to report a stolen object? What would happen?
AB: Well, some of the big museums will have very good contacts, either in London with the Met Art and Antiques Aquad or perhaps with local detectives. But I think the most important message is the one that we give to citizens every day. If it’s an emergency then dial 999, particularly if it’s a crime that’s just happening now. And that illustrates this really well because it could be a local officer who turns up at the scene of a crime first. What I want to make sure is that behind them there are detectives who won’t normally deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis but are really good at catching criminals, who know that there’s someone in the force that they can speak to to get some advice. And I kind of hark back to my days as a working detective - you know, where I’ve dealt with art and antique thefts and had no real expertise but it’s really good to know there’s an expert you can speak to. And ultimately, up through the beat officer, through the specialist detective, those individuals, those frontline local officers plug into a network up through the group that I’ll be chairing – plug in to organisations like the serious and organised crime agency, ultimately in to Interpol and the international art and heritage world.
GA: Vernon, maybe I can turn to you on that question. This is an international situation and of course if an artwork is stolen, it might well be traded outside the boundaries of the UK. How linked in is the museum to an international community of institutions that are thinking about art theft?
VR: Well we’re members of a number of different groups. I attend a conference in America every year. The American museums are all linked in together, and there’s a similar group now forming in Australia and New Zealand that are linking into another one in Europe so that we are starting to communicate. But actually the essential element here is, if we’re talking about post-event, it’s the police that need to be linked in. It’s that these objects will move across borders very, very quickly and the liaison points within forces start to communicate information. So, it’s a matter of museums very quickly admitting what has happened and releasing images of those objects because you need to get them back and you need to get them back quickly, preferably before they leave the country.
GA: So, does it get immediately very hard to recover an object when it leaves the museum? Is there a window there of opportunity to catch it?
VR: Absolutely, I mean the police will talk about the golden hour, that’s the most important thing, the thing that you can straight away, you know, we as museums have to have those objects ready for the police so they can circulate, they can start looking for it, they’re stopping people, they’re searching people, customs are searching people. Once those objects have gone abroad you’re relying upon the circulation of images and descriptions for objects that are hard to describe and sometimes not photographed. You’re reliant on the fact that we don’t have a national database of stolen art, we do have an international one – Interpol – but you know, who searches it? It’s not searched often enough and again I think this is something that Andy’s working group is looking at. How do we circulate those images around quickly? Because once they’re in China, once they’re in the United Arab Emirates, well traditionally we’ll see them after seven or fourteen years. They’re coming up in seven year periods. Well that’s an awful long time for us to wait, not just because the public has been deprived of that object but because of the potential damage that object can suffer whilst it’s in careless, un-expert hands during that time.
GA: Andy, earlier you mentioned the importance of the digital space in relation to this subject. I wonder if you could characterise, if you like, the innovation of the art thieves that you’re combating. Are they developing new techniques? Are they finding new ways to try to frustrate out security measures?
AB: Yeah, I’ll be careful in what I say here – though I’m sure all of your listeners are law abiding! But, inevitably, as in all areas of crime to be fair, criminals are always innovative, they’re always looking for new opportunities and I think particularly at the moment with effectively pretty much a worldwide recession, that impacts on criminal gangs too right across the world. So, they will be innovating and particularly at the moment, a crime trend internationally, not just confined to heritage crime, is showing that they’re moving very significantly in to using the web - cyber crime. So it’s an area that working with really all of the institutions, that sit on the new board and many others we need to be really alert to as part of our preventative measures... but going back to the point I made earlier, Glenn, the web isn’t a bad thing. It also enables us to get messages out really quickly. It enables us to circulate and identify stolen property as well. So, as I said earlier, it’s a two edged sword but undoubtedly criminals are exploiting the technology.
GA: And do you feel like the intelligence that you’re creating about criminal networks, is that of such confidentiality that it’s quite difficult to share it with someone like Vernon in a museum?
AB: I think with trusted organisations it’s really important. Often we’re often not necessarily talking with institutions, organisations about an individual. Often we’re talking about trends and it’s really important that we do professionally share that information and data. Often, what we’re doing with our partners is aggregating the information that they’ve given us in the first place, so it is really important that we share that information and use it as a catalyst for action.
GA: So, Vernon, hearing what Andy’s been saying, how would you look at the police force as assisting your role as Head of Security for the V&A?
VR: Well, they’re essential and I think that these moves are really important. We have to have confidence that we’re getting that information. We’ve got our own groups that share information, but the police are the repository of all of that and so it’s a pass on what they can to us... we don’t expect specifics, we don’t expect photographs of people they suspect, you know, though maybe that can be done on a one to one basis if they’re targeting our actual museum. But what we do welcome from them is openness about trends that we can adapt. You know, we’re the best people to provide security at our museum, but we can only do that if we’ve got the information, if we know what the current risks are.
AB: And I think it’s really important to say, we do get items back. I can just give one example from my own force last year. We have a fantastic display at Perry Green of Henry Moore sculptures. Well one of those items is a phenomenal piece of sculpture, a sundial. It was outdoors and it was stolen. Obviously, detectives, we keep an open mind; it could have gone internationally. But we actually found through publicising it – back to my point about the web and you know, your point about how interested the media and the public are in art theft – we actually found, that a local scrap metal dealer reported it. It was sitting on the desk in the scrap metal dealer’s. He had paid forty-six pounds for that item to the criminals and we got it back and restored it to its rightful place and the Henry Moore Trust were absolutely delighted to see it back because they thought it had been lost forever, possibly gone internationally, I’d imagine, and we managed to get it back. So there are success stories and I think the whole theme of the new working group and working closely with museums, archaeologists, English Heritage and others is about, as a team effort, law enforcement, working closely with partners and the public can have success against crime and prevent it happening.
GA: Ok, that’s a great message to send out to our listeners. Hopefully there’s a sense that this is a situation that’s well in hand, and that further communication and cooperation will make us even safer in guarding our collections. So, I hope you have enjoyed that conversation, I found it absolutely fascinating. Thanks very much to both Andy and Vernon and please join us again for the next episode of the V&A Podcast: behind the scenes at the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com