Criminal gangs targeting high-value works of art in UK

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Media captionIn May last year, a rare medieval jug was stolen from a high-security display cabinet in Luton.

Organised criminal gangs are increasingly targeting valuable works of art and antiques in the UK, according to senior police officers.

Figures suggest these thefts total more than £300m a year, second only to the proceeds of crime from drug dealing.

Detectives say the gangs are prepared to use extreme violence to get what they want during the robberies.

A new strategy will be launched on Monday by police and various agencies to tackle this kind of crime.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) claims there is a growing trend for organised crime groups to prey on works of art displayed in museums, libraries, archives and private collections to fund further criminality.

"It is a significant concern to us," said Andy Bliss, chief constable of Hertfordshire, who is in charge of ACPO's heritage and cultural property crime working group.

"Just a single item can be worth many millions of pounds and those sorts of items will appeal to criminals right around the world."

The theft of art and antiques in the UK is estimated at £300m, second only to drug dealing and more costly than the theft of stolen vehicles, according to a police report being released on Monday.

Figures from the Art Loss Register show that, since 1991, about 60,000 items of art, antiques or collectables have been reported to it as lost, stolen or looted from the UK.

'Personal attack'

In May last year, a rare medieval jug was stolen from a high-security display cabinet at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton.

At the time it was one of only three known in the world and is worth £750,000.

"After the theft, everyone was in a state of shock and people were very angry. It was like a personal attack and we were determined to get it back," said Karen Perkins, director of arts and museums at Luton Culture.

The Wenlok jug was eventually recovered by the police and returned to the museum but is yet to be put back on display owing to the damage it sustained.

One man was jailed for more than two years for handling stolen goods.

"So many museums at the moment are not having success stories. They are not having their objects returned, so we felt very lucky" said Ms Perkins.

Organised crime

Det Supt Adrian Green investigates serious heritage crime across the country and told BBC Radio 5 live Investigates that objects are being stolen here and then shipped abroad to be sold to dealers and collectors.

"This is top-level international organised crime and it runs into tens of millions of pounds.

"What we're seeing is that the value of items is increasing but also the level of violence that they are prepared to use is increasing, which is obviously a major concern to law enforcement.

"It's robbing our communities of their heritage but it's also putting millions of pounds into the pockets of criminals."

On Monday, an ACPO-led taskforce, made up of representatives including English Heritage, the National Crime Agency and law enforcement professionals, will unveil their latest strategy to tackle this crime.

Their plan includes a national intelligence database and more dedicated officers.

"They may major in art and antiquities but very often there will be links to money laundering, there'll be links to violence and firearms, and often of course to drugs.

"Where there's money to be made, organised criminals will move in if we don't stop them." said Mr Bliss.

You can listen to the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 17 November, at 11:00 BST on BBC 5 live.

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