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Scotland Yard

Britain's Art and Antiques Squad harnesses the latest image technology to aid crime solving

Scotland Yard launches computer system with international potential

Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad, disbanded in 1984 but reformed at the end of 1989 following pressure from the art trade, is launching a new computer system this month that not only records images and data on stolen objects but can act as a tool in their recovery. Led by Detective Chief Inspector John Butler, head of the International and Organised Crime Branch, the Squad has grown in size within the last eighteen months. At the same time, with the rise in art theft, the initiative was launched to create a computer software system that would aid both in catching criminals and in recovering property. Developed for Scotland Yard by the Hampshire computer company First Option, ACIS, Article Classification and Identification System, is a programme that can be used on all the standard British crime force computers. Whereas up till now information on stolen art and antiques has been stored in filing cabinets in Scotland Yard, the new system will obviate the need for a central data base as the officers in any force in the country that have access to ACIS will be able to key in to any other through telephone links. Advanced technology for storing images in a compacted form and for scanning and transmitting images is an integral part of ACIS as recovery of works of art often depends heavily on the existence of photographs. High resolution pictures of stolen works of art can be called up on screen and enlarged for details or printed out to a standard that would not disgrace a published book. Videos of interiors showing works of art can be run through the computer and stills taken to augment a file on a particular theft. Organised to look like standard crime sheets, the files include detailed information on the work of art or antique compiled with the aid of pull-down menus on everything from types of medium to correct art historical terms.

Detective Inspector Jill McTigue explains the growing trend towards art theft, especially in country districts, saying, "Really good villains have moved from armed bank robbery to country houses. What they steal is high value and easy both to get at and to get rid of. Once the thief is caught the objects need to be traced back to where they were stolen from for a case to be brought and conviction is only successful if the "mens rea" or intent to steal can be proved. The average sentence is only eighteen months to two years". To combat the rise in art theft, a campaign to encourage individuals to photograph their valuables is being launched, with sponsorship from the leading insurers against art theft Hiscox Underwriting Ltd. A spokesman confirmed that the insurance industry in general is concerned about art theft and keen to be seen helping in its recovery.

On an international level, the Squad is actively encouraging Interpol, the FBI and other police forces abroad to adopt similar computer systems that could link up and work together in solving international art crime. In the last twelve months a major painting by Magritte stolen eleven years ago in Germany (identified by photos of the weave in the back of the canvas) and two paintings from the Beit Collection, a Dominican monk by Rubens and "The Music Party" by Antoine Palamedez, have been recovered by the Squad.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Scotland Yard launches computer system with international potential'