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Fitzwilliam museum
The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge was one of the museums burgled last year. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Nineteen people have been arrested around the country in an operation involving 26 police forces in connection with a spate of thefts of artefacts worth millions from museums and auction houses.

The 17 men and two women were held in dawn raids involving hundreds of police around England and Northern Ireland. The operation, which follows a pan-European investigation, also involved officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The arrests were connected to six thefts over a four-month period last year: three at Durham Museum and the others at a Norwich museum, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge and at Gorringes auction house in Lewes, East Sussex. Items stolen included Chinese antiquities worth more than £15m and a rhinoceros horn.

Five men aged between 20 and 54 and two women, 28 and 54, were arrested in London, four men aged 24 to 56 were held in Cambridgeshire, and two, aged 28 and 46, in Essex. A 60-year-old man was arrested in Sussex, a 32-year-old man was arrested in the West Midlands and a 67-year-old man was arrested in Nottingham. Three men have been arrested in Northern Ireland.

Cambridgeshire police, leading the operation, said all of those arrested were being held on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle, except the 54-year-old woman who was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and assisting an offender.

Chief Constable Mick Creedon, the lead officer for serious organised crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “The series of burglaries last year had a profound effect on museums and similar institutions and we are committed to bringing all those who were involved in the conspiracy to justice.


James Meikle
The Guardian


Kunsthal art heist
An empty space on a wall of the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam after the heist last year. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images

Ash from an oven owned by a woman whose son is charged with stealing seven multimillion-pound paintings, including works by Matisse, Picasso and Monet, contained paint, canvas and nails, a Romanian museum official said on Wednesday.

The discovery could be evidence that Olga Dogaru was telling the truth when she claimed to have burned the paintings, which were taken from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal gallery last year in a daylight heist.

Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, told the Associated Press that museum forensic specialists had found small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint, and copper and steel nails, some of which pre-dated the 20th century.

“We discovered a series of substances which are specific to paintings and pictures,” he said, including lead, zinc and azurite.

He refused to say definitively that the ashes were from the stolen paintings. He said justice officials would make that decision.

He did venture, however, that if the remains were those of the paintings, it was “a crime against humanity to destroy universal art”.

“I can’t believe in 2013 that we come across such acts,” he said.

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said forensic specialists at the museum had been analysing ashes from the stove since March, and would hand their results to prosecutors next week.

The seven paintings were stolen in October in the biggest art heist to hit the Netherlands for more than a decade. Thieves broke in through a rear emergency exit of the gallery, grabbed the paintings off the wall and fled within two minutes.

The works would have an estimated value of tens of millions of pounds if they were sold at auction.


The Guardian

Edgar Tijhuis, a criminologist, lecturing students enrolled in a summer program in Amelia, Italy, in international art crime studies (Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times)

“What’s the resemblance between the illegal art trade, the funding of terrorism by charities and smoking pot in a Dutch coffee bar?” Edgar Tijhuis, a criminologist who teaches at VU University in Amsterdam, paused and looked expectantly at a dozen students listening raptly. There was silence. “I hoped you wouldn’t say anything or else I wouldn’t have much to teach you,” he said.

Professor Tijhuis, who also practices international art law in Amsterdam, had come to this small walled town in Umbria, where church bells chime hymns to the Virgin Mary, and swallows squawk louder than cars, to lecture students enrolled in what is billed as the first master’s program in international art crime studies.

His class focused on international organized crime, and the lecture touched on money laundering and cigarette smuggling as well. (As for the resemblance he asked the students about, he explained that the activities showed how illegal transactions can be transformed into legal ones, and vice versa.) Other courses include art history, criminology, museum security and forgery. They’re all part of a three-month master’s program here trying to capitalize on interest in a field that’s been gaining attention through news media reports about the restitution of looted art and through popular literature. Not to mention that police forces around the world have in recent years created special squads to combat the problem.

Noah Charney, an American, is the director of the program and founding director of the group that sponsors it, the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art (which also consults on what it calls art protection and recovery cases). He said the time was ripe “for academic study to help inform future police enforcement.”

According to the association’s Web site ( Italy has by far the most art crime, with “approximately 20,000 art thefts reported each year.”

Citing Interpol, Mr. Charney said art crime was the third-highest-grossing illegal worldwide business, after drugs and weapons. Interpol itself says on its Web site ( that it knows of no figures to make such a claim.

Whatever the case, fighting art crime may certainly pay for Mr. Charney. He has managed to transform himself into a 360-degree specialist. He not only teaches at the school and other universities, he also writes fiction and nonfiction books on the subject and he’s developing two television programs, one of a documentary nature that he would present, the other a fictional drama based on himself.

Harasyn Sandell, 22, who graduated this year from Dominican University of California, said she had long wanted to work with the F.B.I. Art Crime Team. “I think I’d be a good undercover agent because no one would suspect me,” she said.

The program, she added, was “seriously the best thing ever,” partly because it puts students in contact with experts like Virginia Curry, a retired F.B.I. special agent who has dealt with art crimes. Ms. Curry was here at a midterm conference this month giving a lecture on unexpected thieves.

“This is what happens when good people go bad,” Ms. Curry began, before Power-Pointing through case studies of graduate students, museum directors and professors who succumbed to temptation. (She did note that “you can make more money working for McDonald’s than as a museum intern,” though she did not suggest that this justified criminal behavior.)


Elisabetta Povoledo
New York Times