Fourteen men have been imprisoned for thefts and attempted thefts at UK museums, including the seizure of jade artefacts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Oriental Museum in Durham. They faced charges at Birmingham Crown Court in a series of trials, with the last of the sentencing on 4 and 5 April. Charged with conspiracy to steal Chinese antiques and rhino horn, they received prison sentences ranging from 15 months to six years and eight months (the maximum penalty for the charge is seven years). Their total haul has been valued at up to £57m.
Most of the 18 pieces of jade taken from the Fitzwilliam in April 2012 have probably ended up in China, according to Detective Superintendent Adrian Green from Durham Constabulary, who led the investigation. This will make a recovery unlikely. Among those found guilty in the Birmingham trial was London-based Chi Chong Donald Wong, who has links to Hong Kong. He was sentenced to five years and six months.
Green told The Art Newspaper that he believes an ornately-carved jade Ming brush-washing bowl may have been stolen to order for a specific collector. He says the Fitzwilliam haul was probably dispersed, with a few items going to Europe and possibly one remaining in the UK.
UK museums are being warned to remain vigilant. Green says that they “must keep on top of the game”. Even without large security budgets, they can still take prudent measures to reduce the chances of being hit. Museums need to “be aware of who is coming in and challenge where appropriate”.
Green says that there are other members of the so-called Rathkeale Rovers (named after their base in the Irish Republic) who are at large in the UK. There are also similar groups of organised criminals operating in Europe. “What we don’t want is for their activities to migrate back to the UK,” he says.
The national policing lead for organised crime says: “Organised crime takes many forms and seeks to exploit any opportunity to harm communities and make criminal profit. This case starkly demonstrates the level of threat, the lengths criminal gangs will go to and the importance of law enforcement agencies sharing intelligence and working together, nationally and internationally.”