Warning over break-up of Scotland Yard specialist art unit

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The Met said the move was temporary and insisted it would continue to investigate any allegations of crime related to art or antiques Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) 1 Save to myFT YESTERDAY by: James Pickford in London Former senior detectives are warning the Metropolitan Police not to close its art and antiques unit permanently, saying any such move would hobble efforts to combat criminal activity and safeguard London’s reputation in the multibillion-dollar global market. Scotland Yard has seconded all three detectives at its art unit to the Grenfell Tower fire investigation — one of the largest in its history — causing the operation’s temporary closure. The Met said the move was temporary and insisted it would continue to investigate any allegations of crime related to art or antiques. However, former heads of the Met art unit and market professionals are raising concerns the operation might not be reassembled after the Grenfell investigation, amid ongoing pressures on police budgets. Vernon Rapley, former head of the art squad at Scotland Yard and now director of cultural heritage protection and security at the Victoria and Albert Museum, said the Grenfell Tower investigation was “very important” and it was essential for the police to be able to redeploy the unit when necessary, as it did during the investigation into the London bombings of July 7, 2005. But he added: “There’s a point when you have to ask when they’re going to come back. Temporary can become permanent. They are one of the very few international teams that are able to deal with what are incredibly complex and difficult cases that could not easily be dealt with using normal detectives or officers.” Dick Ellis, founder and former head of the art squad, said: “To close — if it is to be closed — a small but very specialised unit at Scotland Yard, which is there among other things to assist other countries, is madness.” He added the squad had been closed once before, in 1984, for budgetary reasons, but reopened again in 1989 following pressure from other international forces and the art market. One issue at the centre of concerns about the possible closure of the Met art unit is the fight to prevent looted or stolen antiquities from the Middle East being used to fund terrorism. The unit works with overseas forces to identify illicit trafficking of cultural goods, and can take action when UK-based dealers and auctioneers relay their suspicions about objects of questionable provenance. It also maintains the London stolen arts database, which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property.