The dramatic scaling down of Scotland Yard's once renowned arts and antique squad has left organised criminals free to plunder the nation's heritage, according to a leading fine art insurer.
Police have sought private money to finance the squad after its annual budget of some £300,000 was halved earlier this year. But the Guardian has learned that Scotland Yard has failed to secure a penny from insurers or auction houses, after months of discussions.
Britain's art market is second only to the US and experts claim up to £200m worth of stolen art and antiques are sold in the UK each year. Interpol estimates that art theft is the fourth largest organised crime after drugs, people trafficking and arms.
Annabel Fell-Clark, chief executive of Axa Art UK, which pays out tens of millions of pounds a year to reimburse victims of art theft, condemned the slashing of the unit's budget. She warned that scaling down the unit was already having an impact on pursuing art thieves who target Britain's stately homes and museums.
"We have seen that they [the team] are increasingly overstretched and being treated as a very low priority. At the moment we have very good information which we are wanting to pass on, which would bring arrests, if not convictions. But we are not being treated particularly seriously, let's put it that way.
"We want to see criminal gangs brought to justice, and in some instances lack of interest from the squad has stopped us being able to pursue further recovery. We want and need to work with the police."
She said Axa was aware the government was seeking funding for the squad but the company had decided it would not consider paying directly for the unit, adding that attempts by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police to find private sponsors in the art world were shortsighted.
"It would be a conflict of interest for us to get involved," she said. "We have slightly different agendas. As insurers, we are interested in recovering the pieces however we can, and are not that bothered about finding and prosecuting the perpetrators. We are concerned that this aspect of law enforcement is not taken particularly seriously right now.
"Very often when you are investigating art theft connections are uncovered with organised crime in relation to drugs and arms dealing, so it doesn't make sense to ignore this aspect of criminal activity."
The London based "arts squad" was formed in 1969 to pursue and prosecute criminals who operate in the second biggest art market in the world. In the past the unit, which is called in to investigate 120 cases a year, was involved in recovery of art works across the world.
This is a troubling development. 150,000 is not a very large sum, and a drop in the bucket compared to the amounts of money which changes hands in the UK art and antiquities market. If the United Kingdom is serious about combating the illicit trade in arts and antiquities, it needs to maintain a well-funded art-theft unit. To expect the arts and antiquities unit to solicit funding from those they are supposed to regulate and police also strikes me as ridiculous.