Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 154-159)



Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for coming to see us. We understand that you have other preoccupations today and therefore we have somewhat re-timed our session in order that you may do us justice and then conduct your other essential activities. Mr Fabricant?

Q154  Michael Fabricant: Thank you, Chairman. Good morning. Thank you for making it this morning. Could you tell me how important it would be and how useful it would be if there were a national database.  

Mr Browne: We think it is the most important practical step that can be taken to confront the concern that this Committee has had and ministers have had on the illicit market here in the United Kingdom, because it would make it much harder for people to dispose of the products of their crimes and it would, I think, act also as a deterrent to thieves who at the moment think that chattels are a good target for crime. I also think that it is important from a wider perspective, because of the linkage that we often read about in terms of the people who are caught for other crimes who are in possession of stolen goods.

Q155  Michael Fabricant: How do you imagine or envisage this database would work in an ideal situation? Would it be a database to which you would subscribe or would it be freely available on the internet?  

Mr Browne: At the moment, as I think you heard in the last session you had, there is the Art Loss Register and other databases which members of this federation use widely, and they are very effective and they are very good. The problem which they suffer from is that the people whom I represent go further than the large firms in London and so on of which people have heard, to much smaller operations, for whom, frankly, the burden of having to pay an amount of money every time you want to search something is an obstacle. It is actually at the fringes, if you like, of the market that things are likely to leach into the market which then change hands several times. One of the recommendations that we originally put to your Committee, which was endorsed by the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, was that there should be a generally available database. It does not need to contain confidential policy information and so forth; it really needs simply to illustrate the property that has been stolen. If you take very famous works of art that are stolen, it is quite clear their notoriety is such that they simply cannot enter the legitimate marketplace. The database will have the effect of extending that further down the scale, and I think that would be very beneficial.

Q156  Michael Fabricant: Would it be unreasonable or unfair to say that actually London is currently the weak link in the market, that London is the equivalent of a car boot sale, and that, if you want to dispose of illicit objects of art, London is the place currently to do it?  

Mr Browne: Not according to the findings of the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel. We did a great deal of work on that actually. It is very convenient for people to say, "Well, we have got a very large legitimate marketplace here, ergo there must be an illicit market." I think the two are entirely separate. Certainly we found very little evidence for it. I am happy to expand on the illicit market point if you wish, but I do not want to monopolise this.

Q157  Michael Fabricant: Let us not do that at the moment. I want to ask you one more thing. You mentioned the witnesses who came last week. Three of them of course represented databases. One of them was from the Art Loss Register, who had made approaches to the Home Office for a free trial of a sort of national database of the sort we have been discussing, where it would be generally available on the Internet, not only obviously to people in the United Kingdom but also potential purchasers throughout the world. When the contact was made back in 2001, the then head of the Violent and Property Crime Section at the Home Office said, in relation to the establishment of such a service, "I understand that the slow progress being made must be frustrating for you." She went on to give an assurance: "It is obviously important to ensure that we establish the most effective process for taking forward this work. I will write again as soon as I have something definite to report, which I hope will be shortly." We learned yesterday there was no subsequent letter from the Home Office and the whole thing was dropped. I wonder what might be your reaction to that and what action you might have taken in the meantime or could take now to encourage such a national database being established?  

Mr Browne: I suppose my reaction, to sum it up in a word, is frustration. I think that we have tried very hard for this. At the moment there has not really been any progress, as you have quite rightly reported. As far as what we are doing, we have been pressing like mad for it. Our view is entirely consistent and has been for quite a number of years now.

Q158  Michael Fabricant: You have supported the efforts of Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register.  

Mr Browne: Yes.

Q159  Michael Fabricant: And you have been pressing, you say. Have you been pressing since 2001?  

Mr Browne: Yes, before that. 2000, I would say. We take part in the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel and we made this recommendation. You will be talking, I know, to Professor Palmer later, and it was, as far as we, the representatives of the art market on this panel, were concerned, a rather important part of this report. It is, I am afraid, frustrating that no progress has been made. As you know, a lot of my members support Julian Radcliffe's Art Loss Register already. I think from the point of view of our federation, we have taken a somewhat agnostic view as to whether this should be done entirely by the Government or whether it is a private/public partnership or whatever. We are interested in the end result, not necessarily how it is achieved.

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