Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Richard Ellis, Trace

  The following are brief answers to those questions posed by way of illustrating the thrust of the evidence sought by the Committee, and can be expanded on as required.

  What do I do? —I currently manage Trace, a part of the Invaluable Group. Trace maintains a comprehensive database of stolen art, antiques and cultural property. The database holds in excess of 120,000 records of stolen objects, together with illustrations where available. The database is unique in that it is a pro-active database, screening auction house catalogues and dealers' stock prior to sale, on a daily basis, identifying stolen property prior to sale.

  The company receives catalogues from over 950 auction rooms around the world, processing the sale lots onto a single searchable database, thus providing the largest Pre Sale database in the world. The presale database also holds some dealers stock, all of which is screened every night by the "Stolen Property Database". Possible matches of stolen items are reviewed manually, with probable matches being electronically forwarded to members of the company's Police Liaison Team for confirmation and recovery.

  The circulation of stolen art, antiques and cultural property is enhanced through the publication of "Trace Magazine" and use of the company web site, leading to additional recoveries.

  How Does this Assist the Trade? —Over 950 auction rooms around the world, and an increasing number of dealers submit their catalogues and stock lists to the company for inclusion on the Pre Sale Database. This provides them with (a) Enhanced route to market leading to higher levels of sales, and (b) a Due Diligence check for their listed property against a comprehensive database of stolen objects.

  In addition, dealers are increasingly contacting the company for Due Diligence checks to be performed by the company on other objects that they wish to purchase.

  The company now checks in excess of 4.5 million objects against the stolen property database every year, providing the most extensive due diligence available anywhere.

  How does this benefit the police/customs and excise? —The company retains the details of the investigating police service in respect of all reports, and in the event of stolen property being identified in the market, the relevant police authority is informed, enabling them to recover the property and instigate investigations into those responsible for its theft and dishonest handling.

  In addition, the Police Liaison Team, which includes two former specialist detectives, assist the police by attending searches and checking on suspect property. Recovered property for which the owner cannot be found is circulated in Trace Magazine in an attempt to re-unite it with its rightful owners.

  There is a special arrangement wit the Norfolk Constabulary, which enables them to access the Stolen Property Database through a secure Internet access, and to check on property themselves. There are other benefits to both Norfolk and the company through this trial scheme.

  What compatibility is there between the various databases? —At the present time, none, other than most stolen property data is now received in the Object ID format, which provides the minimum standard required to adequately circulate uniquely identifiable property.

  Is your database sufficient and/or necessary in relation to due diligence? —Very! The unique automated screening of the Pre Sale Database by the Stolen Property Database provides the largest and most comprehensive due diligence check in the world.

  Without the use of this technology it would be impossible to screen the breadth of the art and antiques market for stolen objects. The company plans to upgrade the technology over the next year, and to enhance the screening process by the introduction of "Art Trained" personnel to review the matches and to perform selective manual catalogue screening.

  What is the balance to be struck between "recovery of goods" and apprehension of criminals? —A key priority is to identify the criminals responsible for the theft of property and its dishonest handling. Identification of the property provides an audit trail leading to the criminals involved. The more stolen property identified and recovered will expose more criminals, and reduce their route to market for stolen cultural property.

  How does the UK effort relate to systems in other countries? —Considering the scale of the UK art market and its importance world wide, a comparison of the UK database efforts in the public sector is poor. Add to that the fact that the UK is also a major loser of its own cultural property, but has no single system to monitor these losses, the lack of action is breathtaking. It is a reflection of the scale of the situation that the two leading private sector systems are both based in the UK.

  What progress has been made towards a comprehensive national database? Having been a member of the Home Office Working Group until June 2001, it would appear very little other than a confirmed recognition of its need. The cost implication as set out in the PITO report and a reluctance to adopt a Public Private Partnership, appear to have left government with no clear idea as to how to solve a problem, which since the looting of national museums in both Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with a series of high profile cultural property thefts at home and elsewhere abroad, is seen to be getting progressively worse.

  What are the implications for the private sector operations of developments in this area? —I believe the implications for the private sector companies in this area are that they must provide comprehensive international systems, capable of providing services to an international community in an international market place. To achieve this there has to be a constant review and upgrading of technologies, closer co-operation with the trade, law enforcement, insurance industry and governments, with a provision for more accessible systems through which stolen objects can be identified.

  What Models are you aware of for public sector developments in this direction? —As far as I am aware there are two possible alternatives currently being reviewed:

    (a)  The provision of a national database through the upgrading of the Metropolitan Police database at New Scotland Yard, which in my opinion would fail to meet any of the requirements for a national system, and would unnecessarily burden the Metropolitan Police with a responsibility, they should not have.

    (b)  There is a proposal for the National Database to be operated under the control of the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft, a registered charity, on behalf of government. The charity would provide an operating model that would include representatives of all stakeholders, including government and law enforcement, on its board. As a "Not for Profit" organisation, any surplus funds generated through the operation of the database would be channelled back into the running of the service, which could be further offset through charitable donations. The Charity would effectively operate the database through a Joint Venture Operation utilising the best elements available in the private sector.

  Do the police have the expertise and resources to implement a specialist database? —No. One of the crucial failings of the ACIS database, which I introduced to New Scotland Yard, was the total lack of any art-trained personnel to operate it. The result was incomplete and poorly entered data leading to the ultimate failure of the system. To operate the system as a national resource, there would have to be a large increase in trained staffing levels. Secondly, the system should be accessible to the trade where most stolen art, antiques and cultural property is recycled. The police are reluctant to provide such accessibility. Thirdly, the system should be proactive, and should screen the market place. The police do not have the systems or the staff to do this.

  What discussions or consultation has there been since 2000 with the Home Office, DCMS, police, in terms of moving this project forward? —There appeared to be great urgency to introduce a national system when the then Home Office Minister Charles Clarke set up the working group in 2000. However, following the general election, and the disbandment of the working group little, or no progress appears to have been made.

27 October 2003

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