There has been a flurry of illegal activity in the art world recently. The nocturnal theft of Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” from a sculpture park in Hertfordshire in December was soon followed by the theft of another bronze by a British artist, Lynn Chadwick, from the grounds of Roehampton University. At the beginning of February, Harry Hyams, the man who built the Centre Point office tower in London, had £30m worth of art and fragile antiques – including a Tompion clock – stolen from his Wiltshire estate. Munch’s “The Scream”, which was stolen from an Oslo museum last August, is still missing.

The vast art economy, which is centred this week on The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, has bred a growing dark economy – $6bn a year is one quoted figure – from which it is as inseparable as a shadow. The two Britons most familiar with it, both formerly with Scotland Yard in London, are Dick Ellis and Charles Hill.

You’ll spot Ellis at Maastricht. He has a polished pate, probably a tight black suit, and there is a gleaming hardness to him, like polished wood. The son of a doctor and amateur painter, who would regularly take his son round antique shops, his entrance into the world of art crime came when he had been a policeman in Westminster, London, for just a year. “My parents’ house was burgled,” he says. “That was on Wednesday night. On Friday I came off night duty at six in the morning. I went straight down to Bermondsey market. I found all the family silver on a stand.”

He arrested the stallholders for “dishonest handling”. They gave up the robber, who was jailed for eight years.

“That got me known as somebody who knew something about art and antiques,” Ellis says. “In the mid-1970s Scotland Yard started a philatelic squad. Then it grew into an Art Squad.” Ellis asked a detective inspector to get him posted there. Not a chance.

The inspector told Ellis that the policy was if you knew anything about the subject, the fear was that you would want to exploit it for your own financial advantage. “It will lead to corruption. So anyone that knew anything about art and antiques couldn’t get on the Art Squad,” says Ellis.

The Yard soon closed down the Art Squad anyway. Ellis was posted to Hampstead, where art theft was rife. “I got three cases, which involved extradition and quite high-profile trials,” he says. One involved an Alfred Munnings, stolen in 1984, and bought innocently enough by a London dealer from Sotheby’s, New York two years later.

“I went to see the owner,” Ellis says. “I said I suggest you write to the commissioner and ask him the details of the circulation that the police made at the time of the theft.” The owner did so. Before replying the Yard asked their own solicitors’ department for an opinion. “And the deputy head wrote a minute in which he castigated the commissioner for closing the Art Squad. There had been no circulation! There was no means of alerting the trade to the fact that it had been stolen. And therefore the commissioner should prepare himself to be sued.”

The Art Squad was hastily reformed. Two years later Ellis was running it.

So to Charles Hill. Softly spoken and unemphatically dressed, Hill seems both a solid presence and deliberately unmemorable – like Alec Guinness. I know him well but find him hard to describe. Which suits him because his forte is undercover work. Partly because his father was American and he grew up in Washington, DC, he is proficient in accents. He worked consistently for the Art Squad and was made chief inspector of operations in 1993.

Munch’s “The Scream” was stolen for the first time on the first day of the Winter Olympics in February 1994. Ellis arranged for Hill to be insinuated into the Getty Museum, posing as “Chris Roberts”. He got the painting back on May 7. The British Museum contacted the Art Squad soon after, saying they had been offered a suspect papyrus. Ellis’s investigation ended with trials of a dealer, Fred Shultz, in New York and a smuggler, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, in London. It was revealed that Tokeley-Parry would coat Egyptian antiquities with plastic and stripe them black and gold to simulate tourist souvenirs. Both were jailed.

In 1996, the Art Squad was again shut down and replaced by “a focus unit”. Hill resigned in January 1997, followed by Ellis two years later. Both are now in the private sector and are scathing about the way art theft is handled. “The police still think art crime is elitist and that the victims get what’s coming to them,” Hill says. “And it’s international. They have no idea how to deal with it.”

Ellis says: “Chief constables are required to have their force graded. But the key performance indicators do not address certain crimes. And art and antiques thefts are one of them. So as far as the chief constable is concerned, a crime like the theft at Waddesdon Manor in 2003, where many millions of pounds of property is stolen, is statistically a single burglary. He is far better off addressing 24 burglaries committed on a nearby housing estate by juveniles, which he will clear up with the same resources that he would use to investigate a £5m single burglary. Because then all he has cleared up is one crime.”

Hill laughs off the much quoted multibillion-dollar-a-year theft figures. “Those figures are rubbish. Police statistics don’t distinguish between an artwork and something that’s been nicked off the top of a television set,” he says. “And a significant proportion of reported thefts are just bullshit. It was a Picasso! If it’s gone who can say it isn’t?” The annual losses are in hundreds of millions, though. “But the police are not interested. There’s no such thing as art crime in this country. There’s no national art squad. There’s one poor blighter, who took over from Dick.”

Ellis and Hill are familiar with the art world’s shadowland and treat it with a degree of respect. “There are actually not that many professional art thieves,” Ellis says. “People who steal art tend to be professional criminals but not all professional criminals steal art. The sign of a professional art thief is that they know what they’re going to do with the stuff. That’s why pieces go missing for so long. Recovered pieces are usually recovered because they’ve gone back into the trade and become recognisable for what they are. That’s when they get into a recovery situation, which may or may not be simple, depending on how the thing has been sold, which countries it has been through and what the legal situation surrounding it is.”

Ellis is now involved with Swift-Find, an ambitious database less than two years old. It was the wheeze of Ehoud Zaidman of Wagonmark, a chain of London pawnbrokers, and financed by New York’s Ofer family, who are serious art collectors. “They looked at the Art Loss Register and Trace,” he says. The ALR is a database and Trace is a magazine, both of which are dedicated to art theft. “What you need is something on which all stolen property is going to get recorded. And on those two systems it never has been. Because their business model relies upon obtaining the details from the victim of the crime and then charging them.

“So law enforcement agencies worldwide have resisted passing data because it’s in breach of the data protection act.” Everybody registers their valuables free on Swift-Find and the end users pay for the service.

So will art crime become history? Hardly. “It’s actually quite easy to get rid of art. It’s only the major pieces that people instantly recognise,” Ellis says. “Eighty per cent of all art crime occurs in people’s homes where security tends to be softer than a museum or a gallery.

“But we are bringing some order to an area which has always been shrouded and chaotic. What is happening to the art market is that it is being pushed the way of the financial industry and the insurance industry – into regulation and transparency. Which, of course, has been alien to the dealer trade. So there will be changes. But I don’t think you’ll ever eradicate art theft. It’s a relatively soft target. Art is a global commodity.”

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