It’s not every day that you get to write up an offence for the first time. So thank you to Christopher Cooper, an amateur antique dealer from mid-Wales who, on 10th May 2016, caused me to brush up on my knowledge of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.
Over a period of time Mr Cooper went to various churches up and down the country and relieved them of religious artefacts, many of which were of great historical value and probably deserving of the epithet ‘priceliess’.
He would then sell these on, making about £150,000 in the process.
Mr Cooper was caught in a ‘sting’ operation and, it seems, pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity to the ‘Cultural Objects’ offence as well as theft and fraud. He has not been in trouble before.
On 10th May 2016 he was sentenced to 3 years 8 months.
The starting point is the Theft Guidelines. It’s probably Medium culpability (page 4) as the offending is actually not that sophisticated. It’s certainly a Category 1 offence. This gives a starting point of 3½ years, with a range of 2½-6 years.
This is a good example of where the guidelines don’t really apply. If he had stolen, say, a bible that was of only historic interest, Mr Cooper could still have got a much higher sentence than suggested because of the historical vandalism involved.
Here, though, the sentence using the Guidelines is probably what would have been passed anyway. Allowing for the aggravating features, this puts it at the top end of the bracket. The sentence passed is equivalent to a starting point of 5½ years.
Although that is an extremely steep sentence for theft, this is significantly more serious that stealing the equivalent sum of cash. For that reason, we would not expect an appeal, or at least one that is successful.
What is the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003?
It was passed a while ago and is not one that I have come across in practice. It’s a short piece of legislation (a rarity nowadays) that was introduced as a Private Members Bill to deal with a perceived problem of the underground antiquities markets.
The Act introduces a prohibition on anyone who “dishonestly deals in a cultural object that is tainted, knowing or believing that the object is tainted“.
The maximum sentence is 7 years (which is the same as theft). There may have been prosecutions for this offence, but I am not aware of any. In this case, it doesn’t add anything to the theft, and would seem to be necessary, but there are cases where it has its place.
One example would be with antiquities from abroad. Although someone dealing in it can be guilty of Handling, it would be necessary to prove that they had been ‘stolen’ under the law of the land in which it happened, not always an easy task.
Another may be where an artefact had been dug up and not reported. Although this may be theft, it may be very hard to prove that, and so this offence is a useful one in the right circumstances.
There are no guidelines for it, but we suspect that the Theft Guidelines would be a starting point (but not the end point) in any future cases.