Art law News United Kingdom

How to stop a thief

Court orders for anti-social behaviour, or Asbos, are one option for heritage organisations

They’ve made history: Darren West (left) and Peter Cox were given Asbos last month for illegal metal detecting

Two men convicted last month of illegal metal detecting on a historic site in Northamptonshire made history themselves when they were given Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), restrictive court orders more often associated with youth crime than treasure hunters. Archaeological organisations are not alone in finding new ways beyond prison sentences to deter criminals. Museums and libraries have increasingly pushed for court orders to ban offenders, in some cases for life.

“Asbos and earlier steps, like formal warnings and behaviour agreements, are not new tools. But we are encouraging our partners to consider them more when dealing with heritage crime and anti-social behaviour,” says Mark Harrison, the national policing and crime adviser at English Heritage. Last November, the organisation published guidance on a range of approaches to dealing with offenders. “This case proves that these options can work in the cultural field, and it’s going to encourage others to think of the full range of powers available,” he says.

Court orders restricting future behaviour, such as entering museums, are often included in bail restrictions. For example, a judge banned Wlodzimierz Umaniec from returning to Tate Modern while he awaited trial for defacing a painting by Mark Rothko at the museum last October. But the ban did not prohibit entrance to other museums and is not due to be extended after his release.

Some museums are pushing for wider-ranging and longer-term bans. In 2011, the Metropolitan Police’s Art & Antiques Unit wanted an Asbo to be imposed on Gary Doyle, who had previously been convicted of theft from museums and was due to be sentenced for burglary. The judge did not issue the order, instead sentencing Doyle to 12 months’ imprisonment and a further 12 weeks for a breach of a previous suspended sentence.

A year later, Doyle was wanted again for an alleged theft from a cultural institution. This time, a chance encounter on a train with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) security manager, Dave Flipping, meant that Doyle was followed and arrested. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment last August.

Museum security

The incident demonstrates that communication between the police and institutions is as crucial as bans. “No one is allowed to steal from museums, regardless of whether there’s a court order or not,” says Vernon Rapley, the head of security and services at the V&A. He has developed the National Museum Security Group, which was set up in 2011 and now has 800 members. The group’s first meeting is due to take place this month.

Getting information to organisations that are not in broader security groups is also challenging. “Smaller institutions may not have time to commit to meetings or get involved in networks,” says Tim Harris, who runs a security group for UK archives. “Court orders have more authority behind them, but it is hard to ensure that everyone has the information they need to enforce them.” Organisations are also bound by the Data Protection Act and have to be wary about who is shown CCTV images and for how long information is kept.

Court orders or not, many institutions are imposing their own bans. Most do not wish to discuss the issue publicly, but the general rule is that measures must be proportionate; a lifetime ban would normally only be imposed after a criminal prosecution. “On the one hand, our society runs on the principle that once a sentence has been spent, the individual should no longer keep paying for the crime,” says the security director of one organisation, who wishes to remain anonymous. “On the other hand, we have to break cycles of reoffending and keep our heritage safe.”

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