North East police will get dedicated art theft experts to tackle the rising trade in stolen treasures.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has set out a new strategy for targeting a trade in stolen arts said to be second only to drugs for criminal profitably.
The North East has seen some of the UK’s most high profile art thefts in recent years, with Chinese antiques, a Nobel Peace Prize and a Shakespeare folio among the items stolen.
Chief Constable Andy Bliss, who leads on the issue nationally, said he was worked with officers from Durham to put together a new plan for tackling the thefts.
He added that the strategy is not just about antiques and paintings, with his team having a focus on lead theft on church roofs as well.
“I know that is a big issue in the North East,” Mr Bliss said. “And you guys have had some very big incidents up there, so this is very clearly not just an issue for London, it is a national strategy.”
Police will have a designated art liaison expert trained up to deal with incidents, while forces are being encouraged to send officers to museums and galleries to see what is at risk and what can be done to keep sites safe.
Mr Bliss told The Journal: “You have some fantastic art up in the North East, great cultural sites, and we want to make sure that stays that way. A big focus for us will be to make sure that while local, officers can’t be experts, they will have the tools they need, they will have an expert on the force. So we are setting out to build that network over the next few months.
“Art theft has a lot of figures bandied around, and a few thefts can push that figure up. But we see this range from minor thefts, to Grade I building damaged as roofs are attacked, and then the big thefts such as those in Durham. And that is partly down to opportunistic theft to criminals stealing to order, often for international buyers.”
Durham was at the centre of the art theft trade last year when thieves stole Chinese treasures worth more than £2m that were stolen in a well-planned heist from Durham University.
Raiders tunnelled through the wall of the Oriental Museum in Elvet Hill, Durham, and stole the solid jade bowl and 18th-century porcelain figurine, both from the Qing Dynasty. They were later recovered within days from a field at Brandon.
Det Supt Adrian Green, of Durham Police, has been working with the unit to come up with the new focus. He said: “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 and putting millions of pounds into the pockets of criminals.”