From 2001 to 2010, Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley managed the Metropolitan Police Department's specialized unit of expert art theft investigators at New Scotland yard in London.
The Met’s Art and Antiques Unit focuses on top tier art criminals and aims to stamp out the illicit trade of stolen art and cultural property.
The unit is made up of four police officers, a support officer and an analyst. It’s based at Wellington House and comes under the Specialist Crime Directorate.
The team is responsible for collating and disseminating intelligence linked to art crime and runs the Stolen Art Database containing pictures and descriptions of 50,000 items. It also helps train officers about investigating art crime and tries to educate the public about protecting their valuables.
Det Sgt Vernon Rapley headed the unit from 2001 until 2010 and said it was a rewarding job returning much-loved items to owners.
“It’s completely different to other areas of crime. People want their objects back, they don’t want a like for like. It’s not like a camcorder. You’re losing something that might have been in your family for generations and might have great sentimental value.”
The unit opened in 1969 as a philatelic squad after a series of stamp dealer robberies. It was decided the Met needed people with expertise in antiques to investigate these crimes.
The Met is the only police force in the UK to have a dedicated art and antiques unit. It’s supported by community partners within the legitimate art trade such as the British Museum, the Art Loss Register, Interpol, insurance companies, loss adjustors and specialist groups like the Antique Dealers Association.
At the time Vernon headed the unit it was overseen by Det Chief Insp David Thompson from the Specialist Crime Directorate. He said: “The unit has a high degree of expertise which is useful nationally and not just within the Met. It’s unfortunate but with competing demand for resources they are the only unit which specializes in this area.”
Det Sgt Rapley said all the officers working on the unit have a general understanding of art and antiques.
“Because the objects they deal with are so diverse, they have to be a Jack of all trades.” He said the unit mainly focuses on proactive investigations. It uses covert policing methods and cultivates sources of intelligence to bring down the handlers of stolen art and people organizing thefts.
“Investigations take a long time. A good art forgery investigation can take three or four of us a year to investigate because they are extremely complex. It’s important to know the art trade when investigating these crimes so you know where to go.”
In 2005, the unit made news headlines following a two-year investigation into stolen art and antiques worth more than £30 million.
Operation Copernicus was launched following the large-scale theft of property from country houses, galleries and private residences across the country. This led to the identification of suspects believed to be involved in the theft and laundering of high value stolen art and antiques.
During April and May of 2005 the unit is running a roadshow through Surrey, Suffolk and Swindon to return stolen items to rightful owners. So far, pieces from 33 burglaries worth £1 million have been identified.
Other high profile successes for the unit include returning a stolen medical manuscript to an Iraqi museum last year. The book, by an Arabic author, dates back to 1012 and is worth £250,000. The unit recovered it after an attempt was made to sell it through a London auction house.
The Met unit also recovered the stolen contents of a shipwreck lying off the coast of Italy. The goods, including diamonds and jewels, were illegally excavated from a ferry which sank in 1870. Four people were arrested for maritime excavation and the property was returned to a museum in Pisa.
Another job for the Art and Antiques Unit is maintaining the Met’s Stolen Art Database, containing photos and descriptions of 50,000 items. Det Sgt Rapley estimates only one in 30 stolen objects makes it onto the database and he encourages all Met officers to send in details of items to the Art and Antiques Unit so they can be recorded.
He said there’s demand from art dealers in the UK to be able to access the database so they can check if pieces are stolen. Det Sgt Rapley hopes it will one day be available on the internet so dealers could check it and contact police if they are offered stolen items.
In the past, the unit has also run training days for police officers in conjunction with art and antiques experts. Officers from the USA, Canada and Finland have attended these courses, along with police staff from around UK.
Det Sgt Rapley said the unit is organizes training sessions for art and antiques owners to give them crime prevention advice. They encourage people to protect their valuables by taking photographs and writing accurate descriptions so they are traceable. He said many people take flattering photographs of objects but pictures which show distinguishing features, such as cracks, help make the item recognizable.
V&A gets its own personal detective
Published online: 08 June 2010
Art thieves watch out, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is about to get a whole lot more secure. In a surprise move, Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, who has headed Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit for nine years, will be moving to the V&A. He joins the museum on 21 June, to take charge of security and visitor services. Before turning to art, Rapley investigated murder, paedophilia and child abuse at the Metropolitan Police. He really got to know the V&A in 2004, when there was a spate of thefts at major London museums. The V&A was hit three times, and 38 rooms had to be shut, many for years, while security was upgraded. Supported by the V&A, the Yard set up the London Museum Security Group. Rapley even took a turn as guest curator earlier this year, when he organised a Scotland Yard-curated display at the museum on fakes and forgeries, which spotlighted the case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, who created objects ranging from Egyptian antiquities to modern paintings. Sue Ridley, who has held the V&A’s security and visitor services post, is moving to become director of collection services. Rapley’s successor at Scotland Yard has not yet been appoined.