‘80 percent of art has been stolen at one point or another in its life’ [91]


‘Even before the Romans took their pick of Greek statues, art was treated as war booty. Throughout Europe's turbulent history, art works regularly changed hands through armed conflict or political domination. And from the 19th century, the Europeans began bringing Asian, African and Latin American treasures into their museums -- to save them, it was claimed, from destruction.


Increasingly, however, "victim" countries are refusing to view history as a closed book. Greece has long demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles, the 253 sculptures from the Parthenon that are in the British Museum. Turkey, China, Cambodia, Nigeria, Mali and Bangladesh say their cultural heritage was ransacked. Mexicans lament that the feathered headdress of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma is in a Vienna museum.


"For Turkey, the point of departure is that pieces should be returned to their country of origin," said Ahmed Ulker, a Turkish diplomat at Unesco, the United Nations cultural body that promotes restitution of unique art treasures. "Of course, we don't want to empty Western museums. But, as a matter of principle, art works exported illegally should be returned... [92]


The above statements have a number of legal issues relating to the title of property. Since the comment was made the press and the industry have indulged in comments relating to the Nazi looting [93] creating a number of Holocaust [94] databases. Recent events in Iraq brought the issue to the forefront again. A simple fact of war is that the invading parties will remove the treasures of the country as booty and trophies this was resolved in a unilateral agreement in 1954 [xiv] during the Hague Convention [95] implying limited compliance from 1899.

These issues and others have been addressed by a number of international agreements [xv] relating to the ‘spoils of war’’. None of these agreements have time restrictions to the date of the original theft, however proof of ownership and time barring in the English courts will reduce the opportunity for recovery. The market Overt in England pre 1995 would allow title of the object to be transferred in good faith. The only exclusion to this is sales that fall between1935-45 relating to Holocaust art.


The issue of legal ownership is a topic of discussion that is pursued by many academics and governments for the world’s treasures when related to ‘high art’. The UK government via the Depart of National Heritage protects the perceived cultural worth of the county by export licenses. All of these agreements and statues rely on the honesty of the owner or seller to raise the issue with the appropriate body performing diligence.

CoPAT Code  - Due Diligence

The Auctioneers and Dealers within the second hand portable goods market have accepted [96] the code of due diligence created by CoPAT [97] some nine years in the making. This twenty-one point check list (12 for auctioneers, 9 for the dealer community), is a logical list of reasonable business practices to remind the parties to check their legal obligations. The HMSO [xvi] has 19 documents relating to these discussions.


The combined codes include a number of issues that since its establishment in 1999 were difficult to achievable at the time. Advances and/or the falling cost of technology can now support the CoPAT code [xvii] . The code shows the inadequacies of the market to follow a number of standard business procedures such as collecting names and address. The introduction of technology may aid the trader. Observation could be covered by the use of CCTV [98] within the business premises or in commercial areas within urban developments [99] .  The business has a number of legal responsibilities once trading has commenced [100] the code reminds the reader to check these [101] .  Since its acceptance the Money Laundering Act [102] has been submitted and replaces a number of items on the check list. However, this Act does not apply to around eighty percent of the market [103] .


The code and CoPAT [104] documentation provide no clear indication of the law referred to in it’s quest to alert traders, handlers and parties to act with due diligence. The instrumented release by the Antiques Trade Gazette, Thesaurus Group [105] and Trace and the lack of prominence within their documentation hints at the commercialisation of this topic such as items 5c and 16h rather than the support of its beliefs [106] . The CoPAT code has been adopted by a number of European bodies [xviii] and the UK charity is now the holder of ObjectID license within the UK. Dr Robin Thornes the researcher for the Getty’s ‘Identification of stolen objects’ project and subsequently the creation of ObjectID is currently the chairperson for CoPAT UK which now appears to be dormant [107] .


The ObjectID remit was to create a rigid paper format [108] allowing this data to be circulated were the creator and recipient would handle a uniformed format [109] . Investigation and discussions were held at a number of levels and across a variety of intended information providers, creating an agreement of the 10 major data requirements now known as ObjectID. These points exclude some of the individual group’s requirements. In fact the observations were driven by individual bodies not the volume of data handled or processed by experience, thus museums and galleries contributions were 75 percent; documentation centres 16 percent, other 9 percent and the police 7 percent. Calculus was used to define the respondent’s returns and the selection process required the classification to be in excess of 90 percent [110] .


Museums and galleries have since 1976 been creating their own systems [111] that can contain 44 fields and the according to Article 5 of UNESCO [112] agreement must be able to transport the data in a common format to other bodies. It can be said that ObjectID provides the basic information that can and is being used by UK law enforcement agents [xix] to collect information relating to portable second hand goods.

Assessing the Volumes of Stolen Objects

The lack of statistical data [113] relating to portable second hand goods from the UK law enforcement [114] does not allow precise information relating to the burglary or theft of these objects [115] . However a source [116] stated that around 12 percent of burglary and theft contains aspects of art, antiques and collectables. Based on HMSO burglary figures this collates to around 650,000 crimes per year involving second hand portable goods. Trace publications report average 5.6 objects per crime [117] extracting this out, collates to approximately 1 million objects, around 14 per-cent of the volume in the trading market place [118] .


Taking the number of loss adjusters specialising in this area, against a random sample of the volume of claims and the objects contained within each claim, this collates to around 320,000 objects per year. This figure will include damage to the object and loss by fire, water and other occurrences that would not involve the police. It would not be unreasonable to assume that for commercial reasons loss adjusters receive less than 50 percent of the claims processed by insurance companies.


It would be reasonable to assume that more than 1 million objects a year similar to those described as second hand portable goods are stolen from their owner [119] based on these loose statistics. Logically a high volume of these must be placed back into the trading market at some point and therefore should be recoverable by some means.


The two main databases that claim to be comprehensive Art Loss register [120] and ACTs/Trace [121] containing over 100,000 objects each [122] . These companies have been trading for at least 10 years [123] and must therefore have established business models. The average data added each year is 10,000 objects. Allowing for slow penetration into the market and for 80 percent of the data to be gathered in the last five years. The average rises to 16,000 per year still less than two percent combined [124] of the objects involved in burglary/theft.  The Trace Fighting crime with technology provides some guidance as to why the figure is low reporting UK police forces in the last ten years have only submitted 30,224 stolen items.


One million objects may include an amount of erroneous data. To test this theory data was gathered from viewing copies of Trace and two websites [125] . The quality percent figures of stolen objects table [xx] is based on 150 objects and was taken randomly from these three sources. The figure of 25,000 was calculated to be of quality, truly identifiable objects. From the assumption of 1 million objects being stolen. Combined the two major companies reach 80 percent of this total on an annual basis [126] . Trace from their magazine and website imply there are no limits in the value or type of objects placed. The Art Loss Register does not display any limit on it’s website, but previous documentation states a minimum value of £500. Both claim strong links with National and International law enforcement organisations.

Law Enforcement

Discussions with the handful of police officers who have a self interest in dealing with second hand portable goods [127] has been combined with those who have partly or wholly retired from police force activity previously involved as ‘antique officers’. [xxi]


The Trace report presented to the home office and the government working committee [xxii] provides an insight to the lack of awareness or reluctance to deal with stolen objects. There have been numerous discussions between ACPO and the ABI in relation to whose task is whose. This includes the refusal [128] to provide information by either party [129] . It has been commented by ACPO that the issue is for the insurance industry to handle. The police ran a different system for recording property theft [130] to satisfy the needs of the insurance industry. Recently the insurance market has implied that government services will assist in the recovery of Art “most important items to rescue and helps emergency services identify specific items quickly. [xxiii] .


Though by informal interviews the understanding of why the recovery of goods receives low police priority is due to the manpower required, the issue of title and often the victim’s lack of commitment [131] after receiving the insurance payment [132] . The police require confirmed identification of the object to bring the villain or handler to justice. Once brought to justice the number of cases thrown out due to lack of evidence or other issues is very high compared with say motoring offences [133] . There are considerable costs incurred and since the induction of account managers and the low clear up rate it is in some ways not a viable activity. This was further confirmed during interviews with ex law enforcement officers, ‘Due to the fact that each one of the 42 England forces operated as separate units. This meant that no data was transferred between the forces and the criminal element understood this, often committing a crime in one force area and taking the objects to another. In the main these routes were from one end of a motorway to another’. [134] One current officer implied that this problem had been reduced by the introduction of regional crime units. The main issue is identifying what the object is, so that it can be checked against other data. The police are reliant on experts from the art and antiques market. These free resources are being withdrawn due the commercial demands on time, often leaving no alternative but to let the criminal go.


Tracking and Managing Stolen Objects

Taking the UK law enforcements clear up rate of 14 per-cent [135] , a significant number of the objects are not being recovered. The two commercial enterprises appear not to have the facilities or the potential to handle the volume of data relating to stolen objects is not being passed onto them.


The International organisations from the information displayed and in discussion appear to maintain either cultural property or high art. The FBI states that it will not register objects ‘less than $2,000 unless part of a larger incident’ [136] to be registered on the National Stolen Art File (NSAF). Interpol maintain a central depository and database of stolen objects from its members. Little of the information is displayed on the website. However they used to produce a circular of six recent objects [137] . The web site contains data relating to the quantities [xxiv] of object reported and dated 2002. [138] There is no qualification of the period it relates to. It does not have a listing related to the UK or reference to the British Isles. ICOM displays a few items from the missing objects list as the ‘red list’.


The information relating to stolen objects is fragmented and includes private individuals websites and small organisations along side other law enforcement agencies. From this spread of around 117 databases, [xxv] 9 are located in the UK including Art Loss Register, Trace Magazine, ACTs and Salvo. A number of crime stopper sites (3), including the Metropolitan police claiming to be the National database with 51,000 objects. [139] Virtual Bumblebee [140] displays 37,434 objects from 15 different organisations as lost including non art and antiques within its listing. [141]


For the protection interest of the party, a due diligence check should be performed. The CoPAT code requires the Auctioneer and/or Dealer to check the appropriate database; this profusion of databases leaves a number of choices for the market to choose an appropriate one [142] . Many of these small databases contain less than 500 objects; some contain duplicate information whilst others contain self-duplication. A number provide no statement of volume coverage and hide behind a façade that does not allow the user to form any assumption of the coverage it provides. The majority claim to be ObjectID compatible or use the structure, all but three of the UK systems show some external evidence.


This low quality of data reflects the recall of the original keeper’s knowledge. However a large number of these objects are illustrated and further quality text information could be gleamed to reach the ObjectID’s minimum standard. For a small number of objects, rewards are offered for information leading to their recovery. The intention for those displaying the objects could be pursuing a part of the large reward for information leading to the recovery of the same. The crude term ‘Bounty Hunter’s’ would classify these businesses and individuals preying on the misfortune of others [143] .


This raises the question to the relevance of value to the piece being displayed as stolen and its uniqueness. An example of this is the search for flat art relating to a stolen description of ‘Cooper [144] , Thomas Sidney. Oil on Canvas. Cows in the meadow’ [145] in 1999’ [146] this artist’s name and description produce 110 matches. The original object had no illustration and sizes were not given.


Low value objects given as a gift at a wedding, christening or retirement contain some form of unique identification, such as an inscription to the recipient. ‘Presented to Mr & Mrs Smith on the occasion of their wedding Sept 1949.’  An example description would be ‘A silver salver, on three hoofed feet, gadroon borders and inscription ‘on their wedding 1949, Hallmarked. A Silversmith.’ Dependant of the rarity of the name and date combination, the number of matches would be few and precise. Auctioneers do tend to include the inscription or imply that the object has an inscription.


Discussions with law enforcement officers who implied that ‘often it’s the simple totally unique objects with descriptions that generate the leads.’ [147] All, of course stated that the inclusion of image would provide clarification of a text match or of goods seized.


Although mass-produced in their hundreds and thousands brown and white goods contain a maker’s name, model name, number and often a serial number. Second hand portable goods do not offer this transparency without some understanding of the subject.

Tracking Devices

This lack of object description and understanding of the terms used created a market for a number of technological devices to assist in the identification of and object once located or seized. There are numerous devices and systems that have been presented to the market.  The following appear to the more popular but is not a comprehensive list.


The rice chip or grain devices, omits a radio signal for a passing transponder to verify itself and its presence. The problem as one officer explained is that the concept was excellent until six different makers created individual systems. This meant an officer whose force had invested in the equipment [148] inspect the same piece six times. ‘This was ok on small pictures, but when you had to check a 22 foot long table the task become tedious. The transponder had to be within six inches of the chip to locate it.’ [149]

Pin Number this involves impressing of scratching a unique number on the object.

Identid-t who provide ancillary services such as packing [150]

Alpha Dot using a similar system to Identid-t and are targeting churches via the insurer Ecclesiastical. [151]

Diamond Grading [152] that can be performed by European Gemmologist.  ‘The insurance world is rapidly realising the benefits of a report and it allows an appraiser to assess accurately the value of a gem. In the event of a loss, the detailed description of gems given in the report is a valuable aid to the identification of recovered items and has previously been used in Trace.’ [153]


Smartwater a product developed using DNA technology suspended in a liquid. The presence of the Smartwater is by using UV lamp and most auctioneers, dealers and police stations have one to check other objects. If present the company is contacted for object conformation [154] .


UV pen and postcode. This technique was strongly prompted by a number of police forces however the UV ink tends to either wear away or fade after six months.


The keeper of the object would of course have to consider which system was best suited to him and the damage it may cause the object during installation or if the substances would mark the object over a period of time.


UK law enforcement officers and civilians employed tend to ignore these technology devices and make a match on the description and/or image. [155] In fact most implied that the ObjectID information provided the level of detail required.

Photograph or Lose it!

‘The “Photograph Your Valuables” campaign was 1993/4, following the introduction of the ACIS database, and we got sponsorship from Kodak and Fuji as far as I recall. We got hold of a number of Polaroid cameras which were issued to area crime prevention officers with the idea that they would take the pictures of people’s valuables at their request. There were some later projects of a similar type with the introduction of “Operation Bumblebee”, and this could have seen another issue of cameras in about 1996ish.’ [156]


More recently the government have used celebrities to further these campaigns. [157]

Previously mentioned Salvo also publishes a magazine that displays images of architectural antiques [158] .



It is as difficult to estimate the success of any of the aforementioned databases and systems including those run by the UK law enforcement. The information is limited to the commercial sector [159] . The main two systems claim to hold over 100,000 objects each. “The Art Loss Register has recovered over 1,000 items with a value of over UKP 75/$100 million since 1991.” [160] This amounts to one per-cent of the objects held each recovery with an average value of £75,000. The Trace website quoted  ‘Over the past 10 years alone, we have assisted in the recovery of over 4,000 objects valued at more than £65 million.’ [161] This amounts to a four percent success rate, the average value of recovery being £16,250.


Trace does not show individual values for objects recovered. The Art Loss Register displays 10 objects [162] with an average value of one million pounds. A single object is valued at £900,000 if removed the average falls to £13,757.


Crimestoppers [163] claim “44,800 arrests and the recovery of property valued at £55 million” [164] there is no breakdown of the property classification available. The 2002 figures of £6 million and 390 arrest average out at £15,385 per arrest. Not dissimilar to the figures from the two commercial databases, however without detail the amount of cross over cannot be calculated.


FindStolenArt presents the highest recovery rate above ten percent. [165]   However, only 14 per-cent of the recoveries have been returned to the owners. This suggests a true recovery rate of 1.54 percent similar to other commercial services.

Seized Objects

Operation Bumblebee was used as a showcase double edge sword. The Metropolitan police had stored objects handed in, seized and recovered from convicted criminals. In total this amounted to around one million items including portable second hand goods [166] . These show case presentations offered the victim of crime the opportunity to be reunited with their objects. Being held at Ascot, Sandown racecourses and at Wembley where Prince Charles was in attendance [167] .


All law enforcement agencies have a similar problem Yorkshire held a number of ‘Too Hot to Handle’ events and were successful in returning objects to their owners. [168]


The success of these double devices has been developed into a web environment using the Bumblebee theme [169] allowing people to search or place objects. Sister sites provide on line auction facilities to purchase objects from the various police stores.