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The British Art Market Federation (BAMF), the Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA) and the Art Loss Register debated the respective merits of legislation to regulate the trade and a policy of international co-operation that is not governed by law when they appeared before the committee on April 18.

Much of the session was spent trying to define the scope of the problem of trading in stolen or illegally exported goods in London.
The committee, chaired by veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, made it clear that they had been convincingly persuaded by the police forces in England, Italy and Greece that London’s illicit trade accounted for hundreds of millions of pounds a year and was used to support international drug deals. Would a problem on such a scale demand firm legislation, including possibly the official registration of dealers?
BAMF and the ADA argued that the statistics showing the turnover of the legitimate trade in London did not support the claims of the police forces concerning the illicit trade. Many more illegal items would have to surface in the mainstream, pushing up the legitimate trade’s turnover enormously, for covert trade to exist at the level being claimed, they said.

Time and again, BAMF and the ADA asked the committee to produce the police forces’ statistics to back their claims of an illicit trade worth hundreds of millions of pounds, but their requests went unanswered, except for the committee to make it clear that they did not think the police were making it up. The opposing view was given weight by Charles Hill of Nordstern Fine Art Insurance. A former head of the New Scotland Yard art and antiques squad, he told the committee that the levels of trade in stolen art in London were prone to exaggeration and that the true level was probably about a tenth of the £500m being claimed.

The importance of establishing the scale of the problem is in how far, in itself, it would persuade the committee to recommend legislation regardless of the damaging impact it might have on the trade. James Ede and Joanna Van Der Lande of the ADA made it clear that the trade does not want to deal in illicit goods and often carries out due diligence checks with the Art Loss Register to avoid them. They will not deal in either stolen goods or illegally exported goods, they said, and they always secure a provenance where possible as this can add to the value of an artefact as well as help them avoid trading in stolen goods.

This was a point underlined by BAMF chairman Anthony Browne, who added that the trade was in favour of an international database to improve due diligence worldwide.

Whether such a database would be based on the Art Loss Register, which the British trade currently use, or another database, was a side issue, but what was absolutely clear was that the trade are not in favour of legislation which they fear will be cumbersome, expensive, impossible to enforce and a bureaucratic nightmare. Such legislation would also be nonsensical without identical legislation across Europe and other continents – and those countries would actually have to enforce that legislation.

Mr Browne asked the committee first to assess how far current legislation was being enforced, as the evidence in Italy showed that it was not. In addition, argued legal expert Antony Mair, the loose definition of cultural property, and the absence of any value thresholds would make the UNESCO convention on stolen goods, to which other countries have signed up, impossible to enforce.

Julian Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register were against new legislation forcing the trade to register with stolen databases because of the huge costs this would incur for a scheme that would depend on a significant financial commitment from private enterprise. But Mr Radcliffe argued that the Government should take the lead from the secondhand car trade where dealers have a responsibility to carry out due diligence checks and can be prosecuted if they are found to have dealt unknowingly in stolen goods without making the appropriate checks.

He also pointed out that of the 6000 items a year it granted export licences to, the Government did not check a single one against the Art Loss Register.

Mr Browne said that it was very important for the problems to be addressed by those who were making the complaints. He said that the Italian and Greek authorities, as well as New Scotland Yard, needed to supply evidence to back their claims, and extra resources had to be made available to New Scotland Yard and British police forces, whose art and antiques squads have been dramatically reduced in recent years, to tackle the issues.

The committee is working on a report on the issues debated for parliament.