Artwatch UK

Does the art trade turn a blind eye to church thefts?

While attention is currently focused on the epic destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East, with looted artefacts regularly surfacing on the European art market and, as previously reported by Einav Zamir, in European museums, a police investigation has revealed that the systematic plundering of churches in England and Wales has gone largely unnoticed for up to ten years.

FLORENCE HALLETT REPORTS:

Treasures ranging from masonry to tapestry to stained glass have been taken from isolated churches, often in the notably rural counties of Devon and Herefordshire, feeding a trade in ecclesiastical objects facilitated by art dealers’ failure to carry out due diligence.

Speaking to ArtWatch UK ahead of television appearances this week, the head of Operation Icarus, Det Insp Martyn Barnes of West Mercia police said that investigations had lead them to art dealers and collectors across the south of England. He said that while he believes most collectors would have bought items in good faith, the dealers involved were not doing enough to ensure that objects were on the market legitimately. He said: “Our general consensus is that their records are woefully inadequate. They say they comply with the law and they probably do – just – but do they turn a blind eye? I would say, yes they do.”

Police have already returned some high profile losses, including the misericords from St Cuthbert’s, Holme Lacy, in Herefordshire and painted panels violently removed from the 15th century rood screen at Holy Trinity Church, Torbryan, in Devon. Some 45 objects are yet to be returned, however, and officers from Operation Icarus will appear on BBC One’s The One Show on Tuesday, and the Crimewatch Roadshow later on this week in an attempt to reunite churches with objects they may not yet be aware they have lost.

Florence Hallett, 8 June 2015. (florence_hallett@yahoo.co.uk; @FlorenceHallett)

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