A 48 year old man has been sentenced for three years and eight months at Hereford Crown Court for crimes including the theft of two priceless 15th century oak panels, as an important piece of legislation, brought into force around the time of the UK’s accession to the UNESCO 1970 Convention in 2002, has at last been used as the basis for a conviction.
Alexander Herman on the Institute of Art and Law Blog writes:
An important piece of legislation, brought into force around the time of the UK’s accession to the UNESCO 1970 Convention in 2002, has at last been used as the basis for a conviction.
The statute, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, sets out an offence for dishonestly dealing in tainted cultural objects. The term ‘tainted’ for our purposes refers to objects that have been removed from buildings, structures or monuments of historical, architectural or archaeological interest. Interestingly, the Act applies regardless of whether the items were removed in the UK or abroad.
The week of May 11 at Hereford Crown Court, in the west of England, the Act was finally put to good use. Defendant Christopher Cooper had been something of a rampant – though perhaps repentant – heritage thief.
Over three years he had moved across the country, targeting churches and stealing statues, paintings, friezes and even several King James bibles. Following his arrest in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to 37 thefts, which included the theft of two 15th century oak panels taken from a rood screen at Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon. The panels have been recovered and are now undergoing extensive conservation.
The defendant was charged with theft under the Theft Act 1968, as well as fraud for selling fakes and replicas of statues, stained glass and coffins, which he offered for sale online, along with the stolen material. But most importantly from a cultural heritage law perspective, he was also charged with dealing in tainted cultural objects under the 2003 Act. He was sentenced to three years in prison on seven charges of theft and three years for dealing in tainted cultural objects, those sentences to run concurrently. He was also sentenced to eight months on two counts of fraud. The sentencing grand total was thus three years and eight months. Certainly nothing to snicker at…
The Churches Conservation Trust writes:
Christopher Cooper admitted fraud, specimen theft charges, and dealing in tainted cultural objects. His thefts took place in a series of offences over three years, and included the two panels stolen from the rood screen of Holy Trinity Church at Torbryanin Devon in August 2013 during which time district crown prosecutor and CPS lead for heritage crime Stephen Davies suggested he made £150,000 from his crimes, according to the Mirror.
It took a dedicated team at West Mercia Police 18 months to fully investigate the crimes, with the support of the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit. Most of the stolen items have now been returned to their rightful owners.
Following a successful fundraising campaign to raise the money to fix damage caused by the thefts, the two priceless panels from Holy Trinity at Torbryan in Devon are now undergoing painstaking conservation work (pictured bottom), and are scheduled to be returned to the church over the summer.
The decorative oak panels, bearing paintings of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch, are considered of national importance, and were stolen from Holy Trinity Church at Torbryan in Devon between 2nd and 9th August 2013. The panels remained missing until they were recovered by the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit after being spotted by a private collector in an online sale. This led to a raid by specialist detectives in south London in January 2015.
Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of The Churches Conservation Trust, said: ‘It is good that Mr Cooper has come clean about these damaging & heart-breaking thefts and has helped return valuable historic items to their rightful owners – the community. Heritage crime causes just as much heartache and anxiety as other sorts of theft, but all too often it goes unsolved. Particular thanks to West Mercia Police and the various police forces who worked so hard to bring Mr Cooper to justice.’
‘Thankfully, the generosity of our supporters and the general public is allowing the priceless artworks he hacked out of Holy Trinity Torbryan in Devon to be painstakingly conserved, and they will soon return home to the church. However, as a heritage charity reliant on donations to maintain and care for our 349 churches, that money could have been spent on other important artefacts.’
The panels are part of a rood screen which is one of only a handful of such artworks in England which survived the Reformation. The theft prompted a national media campaign to try to trace the whereabouts of the missing panels, receiving the backing of high profile figures such as Loyd Grossman, Dan Cruickshank and the late Candida Lycett Green. The collector who alerted the police recognised the panels from media coverage of the theft.
When it first came to light in 2013, the theft was a bitter blow, but thanks to generous donations from supporters and members of the public, £7,000 was raised to restore the damage, and thanks to a £47,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Holy Trinity is also currently the venue for a project to tell the history of the building and the surrounding village and countryside, adding imaginative new on-site interpretation and events.
West Mercia Police led the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, and recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles.
For more background see the Plymouth Herald and the Guardian
Access the Act
Conviction at last under 2003 Act