English heritage increasingly victim of material theft

Britain. Stone theft from historic sites increased by 9% in England in 2022, according to a survey carried out by Historic England, the public body responsible for heritage, and the National Police Chiefs' Council. Carried out between February 2020 and February 2023, it reveals that walls and paving slabs in Yorkshire (in the north-east of England) and Cheshire (in the north-west) are particularly targeted. These stones are removed from the grounds of historic properties and from church roads by thieves in organized gangs who, disguised, pose as workers. Cited in particular in the report is the theft of stones from York between January and March 2022 from eight historic churches for a value of 100,000 pounds (117,000 euros). The report also cites the theft of cattle troughs or takings from ancient bridges and granite fountains in Kent and London.

The investigation notes an increase in offenses linked to the theft of cultural property from art galleries, museums and stately homes. Artworks and antiques are the most frequently stolen items. During the period 2021-2022, the value of stolen cultural property is estimated at more than 3.2 million pounds (3.47 million euros).

“The theft of heritage materials and valuable cultural objects by opportunistic offenders and organized crime groups is likely to increase as inflation continues to impact the price of materials”, says the report, citing the example of lead. During the Covid-19 lockdown periods, theft of metal roofs from historic churches also increased by 41%. On the other hand, the preventive measures put in place made it possible to reduce this type of theft by 26% between January and November 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.

Resale of materials on the Internet

Nationally, 53 of the 943 places of worship listed on Historic England's Heritage at Risk register in 2023 have suffered fires, theft (from fixtures and fittings, metal or other exterior materials) and vandalism such as graffiti.

Historic England, whose list of protected sites contains more than 400,000 entries, lacks national crime data to describe a long-term trend. But the scale of the problem led, in 2011, to the creation of a program responsible for providing advice on preventing theft and vandalism. Since 2013, a growing number of police commissioners have identified crime linked to heritage and cultural property as a central problem at local level, a trend accentuated by the possibility of selling anonymously on the internet. “The results of this assessment will help us develop the new tactics and technologies needed to stay one step ahead of those who intend to steal our heritage.”said Mark Harrison, head of Historic England's crime programme.

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