Richard Ellis speaks at the Art Business Conference on September 6, telling the audience “it would be serious folly” not to reopen the unit.

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A Met spokesman confirmed that “there is no plan currently to permanently close the Arts and Antiques Unit, and the detectives seconded to the Grenfell Tower fire investigation will return to the unit as soon as possible”.

As revealed previously by ATG, the art crime unit was closed in June with its three officers reassigned.

The unit’s detective constables are Ray Swan, Sophie Hayes and Philip Clare and civilian analyst Chris Groarke. They have been without a detective sergeant since Claire Hutcheon left in March 2016.

However, it is understood Rob Upham from the Met’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command is being lined up as a replacement.

The unit, which had been due to reopen this month, has been temporarily closed in the past, for instance following the July 2005 bombings.

‘Serious folly’

Richard Ellis, a former Metropolitan Police officer who re-formed the art and antiques crime unit back in 1989 after it had closed in 1984, told delegates at the Art Business Conference in London last week that “it would be serious folly” not to reopen the unit.

He added: “I spent 30 years with the police. I have seen too many temporary postings become permanent. We are right to fear it will face closure due to the redeployment of officers.”

“It seems madness to me to ignore the second largest art market in the world and have no dedicated officers

Ellis acknowledged that the Met is under budgetary pressure but argued that the effective investigation of the burglary of art and antiques, international cultural property theft, fraud and money laundering would be at risk of being unpoliced.

Ellis told ATG: “It seems madness to me – with so many organisations concerned that terrorist groups may be trying to raise funds through the theft of antiquities – to ignore the second-largest art market in the world and have no dedicated officers.

“The Met could find itself being sued for failing to protect the public.”

According to Ellis, in contrast to the UK, the US has had trained 400 officers since 2007 and the FBI has 16 special agents on its art crime team.

He added: “We should take a leaf out of the Americans’ book and increase our efforts. But it appears the attitude here is ‘what is the least we can get away with’.”