Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Salvo


  Salvo's principle message is that databases are proliferating so no one database will win the race to supremacy. The Government should concentrate on bringing together the various interest groups. The Government should also decide what the recommended national database is aiming to achieve.


  Databases exist to reduce crime. Interestingly one of your witnesses was asked about the Kent Bill. Earlier this year we asked Kent Police if the Kent Bill had reduced theft and burglary in Kent. The answer they gave was no. People lose sight of their objectives very easily it seems.


  There are two broad types of database—open access and restricted or closed access. Closed systems tend to exclude people from having a role in helping to catch criminals and recover goods. Open systems seem more effective at recovering the types of stolen goods we cover. We do not know if closed or open systems catch more criminals. We do know that the police need to seek and avail themselves of the public's help if they are to succeed.


  The remit of the Illicit Advisory Panel is too broad. The Panel may know a lot about high value antiques from Iraq, Rome and London antiquities, but they know much less about staddle stones from Northampton, cheap fireplaces in Bangor and stolen garden ornaments. The Panel's solutions will close doors to certain criminals but open many doors to others. Care is needed before action is taken.


What do you do?

  Salvo is a partnership of three that networks information about antique and reclaimed materials from buildings and gardens to dealers, DIY-ers, mainstream construction, police and heritage organisations. Salvo started in 1992. In 1995 we started the "Salvo Code" for dealers which now has 110 signees, mainly UK, but also European and North American. SalvoNEWS is a printed and e-mailed newsletter, each edition of which circulates to between 500 and 2,500 people. In tandem with our aim of helping to reduce the 33,000 tonnes of reclaimable materials landfilled very day in the UK by stimulating the market, we started the "Salvo theft alerts" database to warn the trade about illicit materials entering the market in the hope that the trade would:

  1.  Avoid buying stolen items.

  2.  Help seize and recover stolen items.

  3.  Help in the arrest and identification of criminals.

Benefit for the trade

  Salvo Theft Alerts helps the legitimate trade avoid stolen items. Salvo Theft Alerts may also help the dodgy trade work out whether something they know to be stolen may be difficult to sell because it is "hot". Each theft alert contains the crime reference number and a police contact telephone number. Since interceptions of stolen goods are often hundreds of miles from, or even in a different country to, the original theft, it is crucial that police crime reference numbers and telephone numbers appear alongside each theft alert to help police local to the intercept tie up the theft with the originating police, in order to make instant arrests and seizures. Without police details goods could be avoided by dealers but no items would ever be intercepted.

Case in point

  Several years ago on a Friday night a wrought iron balustrade was smashed off with a sledgehammer extensively damaging the stone staircase of a listed Georgian customs house that had been empty for years. A local dealer told us that night. The local police were also told. We sent out an e-mail to the trade that night. The next afternoon, in a dealer's yard about 60 miles from the crime, a van turned up in the back of which was a load of wrought iron stair balustrade. The written description matched. The dealer arranged for one member of staff to engage the van-driver in conversation while he called the police. Twenty minutes later three squad cars turned up, lights flashing and tyres screeching into a yardful of bemused Saturday shoppers. The police took a look inside the van and called the police in the town of the theft to confirm that a crime had taken place. It was Saturday afternoon and no-one was available to help. They tried to contact the owner of the building from where the balustrade had come, but they could not find out who owned it. They tried for an hour, holding the van in the dealers yard and generally disrupting that dealer's prime Saturday selling time. It was obvious that the material was stolen, but the police refused to act. Without a crime reference number they felt powerless to arrest (they could be accused of making a false arrest) and they knew the CPS would not proceed. So they let the van-driver and the goods go, and that was the last that was ever seen of him or the balustrade. The dealer who made the intercept was very unhappy, and we vowed never to run a Salvo theft alert without a crime reference number again. We do, however, now run theft alerts called H2i (hard to identify) which alerts the trade to possibilities of stolen items.

Benefit for the police and/or Customs and Excise

  Salvo theft alerts have helped the police by:

  1.  Helping to circulate information quickly by e-mail on the same day to the trade, some auction houses and 12 UK police FIB's.

  2.  Helping to recover stolen goods.

  3.  Helping to arrest and convict criminals.

  4.  Helping to check seized goods against our database especially when the seizure is by police who may have little expertise in antique-identification from photographs. We have not heard of Customs using Salvo Theft Alerts. They may do but we would not necessarily know.

Coordination or cooperation with the police/Customs and Excise

  Salvo does not co-ordinate the police in any way. We have never been involved operationally. We merely pass on information given to us by the police and public. We do cooperate with the police and will do whatever is asked. We would like to be more involved with police policy but have never been invited.

Compatibility between the various databases (and between the databases and the ACIS database available online)

  These days all databases are compatible in a computing sense. Salvo has started to join data from different databases together in real time. Data from one of our databases now appears on a GIS map based recycling database run by the Building Research Establishment. In future there will be thousands of theft databases. We are devising a system for them all to be searchable with one click of the mouse.

The contribution of your database to "due diligence" by the trade

  Salvo Theft Alerts is an open database. We have thought long and hard about "closing" our database but have not yet seen any compelling reason for so doing. It has been suggested that we should do this by Trace and ALR. However, Salvo Theft Alerts statistically is the best performer of the three with an average 14% recovery rate between 1995 and 2000. One reason given for restricting access is that it somehow proves due diligence. However, it is easy for us to know if a dealer has checked our database.

Proving due diligence using an open database

  If in court a dealer said, "I checked Salvo's database on 23 March and the fireplace was not on it", we could absolutely and easily verify whether or not the fireplace was on the database on 23 March. We could not check whether the dealer checked the database, but that is academic if the item was not on it. If the dealer claimed to have checked the database and not found the fireplace but the fireplace was on it on 23 March, then a claim of due diligence by the dealer will not have been proved. If the dealer claimed that the database was "down", whether or not it was is irrelevant, unless he rang us up he would not have proved due diligence.

  The problem is that due diligence checking is not realistic if a dealer has to check a dozen databases. This is why we are looking on single click pan-database searching. Such systems cut across commercial and operational interests. If they are in the public interest perhaps they should be publicly regulated and funded by a levy on insurers.

  The ALR have a closed system although a criminal could pay to search their system. Trace have a closed system although they print theft alerts in their paper and anyone can subscribe. So neither have strictly closed systems at all.

  At present we do keep log files of requests made to the database and these could be used by police computer forensics to find out who made the request. I guess this could be of limited use to the legal system. Our database is not sufficient in the sense that it does not have every theft of architectural and garden antiques logged on it. We reckon to receive information on between 5 and 10% of reported thefts, and we receive between 100 and 200 theft alerts per year. So we guess that there are around 1,000-2,000 architectural and garden thefts a year in total in the UK. Due diligence with respect to unlawfully removed objects, as opposed to stolen ones, has not been considered by the Government, but there are perhaps so few cases as to make it not worthwhile. Salvo Theft Alerts would easily cope with these too. We believe our system is as powerful as the major search engines, so we should not have a problem with bandwidth, capacity and usage.

The balance to be struck between "recovery of goods" and "apprehension of criminals"

  This is a good question. Why do we have theft databases? Is it to alert the trade to allow them to avoid items, or is it to catch criminals or recover stolen goods? Simple guidance is needed. At present, if a dealer acts to help catch criminals, he or she usually exposes their staff and business to danger. The police say "do nothing, take details. let the criminals go and phone them afterwards". The insurers say, "do nothing, we don't want the stuff back, we will write off the loss on an actuarial basis". The heritagists say, "don't deal in architectural and garden antiques in the first place, then there would be no problem (apart from bigger landfill sites)". Many dealers ignore the dangers and have a go, often resulting in the recovery of goods and, less often, arrests and convictions. Salvo does not take rewards, and the best dealers are not influenced by them. We have not seen evidence that rewards work, and I believe they may encourage higher value crime, and corruption. The simplest way of reducing crime would be if licensed dealers were allowed to buy known stolen goods cheap to repatriate to the losers, for which insurers would then foot the bill. For uninsured goods the dealer would foot the bill. The dealer would take details, registration numbers, photos etc of the seller (who most of the time is not the thief), and pass that information to the police. The police could then decide to act or not, but at least the goods would be recovered. At present when known stolen goods turn up in a van in a reputable dealer's yard, the police generally do not act, the criminal gets away, and the goods disappear. It should be stated that some theft is likely to be insurance fraud anyway.

Insurance fraud example

  This happened a few years ago. A dealer buys a nice pair of urns from a county gent who turns up in his yard. The dealer pays £1,500 by cheque. The vendor lives 100 miles away. A few days later a Salvo theft alert is raised and, sure enough, it is for the theft of the same urns. The dealer contacts the police who visit the loser and ask him to go and identify the urns. The owner turns up and says they are not his urns. The dealer can plainly see they are, but if the owner denies it, what can you do? It turns out that the insurers have paid £5,000 for the loss of the urns. So the owner has made a cool £6,500 out of the deal, enough for a family skiing holiday if other finances are a bit low.

The UK's effort in relation to systems in other countries

  The UK has the most honest dealers and the best theft databases. My guess would be that incidence of crime is lowest, and recovery highest, in the UK. However, there is a problem and the situation is not rosy. Currently the UK's appetite for interceptions is going down, our theft database is getting less information, crime has shifted from high to lower value, harder to identify, items and is increasing; and recovery has plummeted.

What progress has been made towards a comprehensive national database since the Committee's, and ITAP's, recommendations in 2000 (not to mention ITAP's firm demarche in 2002)

  Salvo held meetings with the Art Loss Register in 2001 and with Trace in 2002, both of whom are able to input thefts on to Salvo's system directly. Of the 12 subscribing police forces, one uses the system directly, two others are considering it. The rest forward information about theft to Salvo by post. Most police forces seem to find theft databases operationally problematic. The ones that have joined Salvo Theft Alerts seem to believe that making theft alerts public encourages intercepts and recoveries, and reduces crime. The idea of a home office database would not be very good in our field. The police do not generally have the degree of expertise needed to keep databases accurate enough to be useful.

Police expertise example

  During a periodic cull of Salvo Theft Alerts to see how many thefts in a police area had been recovered, we asked about the theft of a large statue of a "heron" (which was in fact a crane). "Well," the officer said, "it's not surprising we haven't found it yet, we were looking for a 4ft herring".

Models for public-sector developments in this area


Do the police themselves have the necessary expertise and resources to implement a specialist database of this sort

  They do not have the expertise, and throwing money at them is not the answer. The trade need one place to search for stolen objects, yet more theft databases are being set up around the world every day.

Due diligence

  In the USA due diligence is a legal requirement upon the owner in the event of a theft to be diligent about looking to recover the stolen goods. If they are not they cannot claim on their insurance for the loss. We should adopt this in Britain. No-one can help reduce theft if theft is not reported and if insurers do not care about recovery. In the UK insurers have claimed that garden theft has reached epidemic proportions in order to frighten people into paying unnecessary premiums. Then when thefts occur the insurers do nothing and just pay up. Insurers must be diligent too.

10 November 2003

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