HOPES of establishing a national database of stolen art have taken a significant step forward. MPs on the parliamentary committee who recommended the database be set up three years ago gave the project a new boost after publicly criticising the Government for failing to act despite promises to do so.
Now Ministers have pledged to submit detailed proposals for analysis by February, decide between options by March and arrange a £300,000 pilot scheme as soon as possible with a view to extending it if successful.
A new report from the Commons Culture Committee in December highlighted the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have prevented progress on the database since 2000, blaming civil service red tape, a lack of political will and a reluctance by law enforcement agencies to sanction the involvement of commercial organisations in running the database.
“We believe the lack of progress stems from a complete failure of ‘joined-up government’ in an area where the policy priorities happen to lie with one department [the Culture dept] and the means and resources with another [the Home Office],” the committee’s new report concluded.
Now they aim to encourage “real progress” with what appears to be “moribund aspects of the Government’s approach and tackling the apparent gaps in any strategy there may be”.
Central to the art and antiques industry’s concern has been that traders have been given the responsibility of carrying out due diligence in an effort to beat crime whilst being denied the tools to do so.
The Government’s chief expert adviser on the issue, Professor Norman Palmer, has deemed the database “crucial”: “How are people going to show that they had no reason to believe it [traded goods] was stolen if they cannot say, ‘I checked the register and the register said it was not there’,” he argued.
And British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne said the database was “the most important practical step that can be taken to confront... the illicit market here in the United Kingdom”.
The Culture Committee have made it clear that because the art and antiques industry in the UK is so large and police resources comparatively limited, it is essential that the industry police itself. A properly used database combined with effective policing provide the best opportunity of tackling illicit trade, they argue.
Now Ministers have also confirmed that the police have agreed to a database being open and accessible to the trade whoever ran it, but questions have been raised as to why only the two commercial databases (Art Loss Register and Trace) were considered in original
discussions, with two non-
commercial databases, Salvo and FindStolenArt, not being involved.