Britain is not unique in allowing trade in antiquities, even when they are recently found portable antiquities. In many European countries, such as Finland and Italy, the heritage and antiquities belong to the state and you cannot legally sell part of this common property that are archaeological finds. Exporting any ancient items is strictly regulated and exceptional, and it is normally restricted to museum objects loaned to other museums. Britain has signed, but not ratified the UNESCO Convention to Tackle Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities, and the antiquities trade is actually quite prestigious, if marginal part of the economy.
Britain has ratified a series of international wildlife treaties, and there has been a dedicated wildlife crime unit. You may have seen occasional news about prosecuted or convicted egg collectors. However, now this unit may be closed. Just when the all-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee had praised its work related to the rhino-horn thefts and international illegal reptile trade, among other things. Luckily, the final decision has not been made and there is some hope that the 10-person unit that is actually relatively speaking cheap to run with its £136,000 annual budget from the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The sum just has not been signed for the coming tax year, so theoretically, the unit may shut when the current money runs out on March 31.
As for the antiquities, continuous work has been done in the Parliament, by the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group (see their ‘agenda’). Lord Renfrew, the former Disney professor at Cambridge has been prominent in this Committee and he used to oversee the Illegal Antiquities Research Centre that sadly was closed in 2007 as part of the reorganisation of Archaeology at Cambridge after the arrival of the current professor. One of the aspects of the Centre and the APPAG has historically been to get Britain to ratify the UNESCO convention. Britain is still among the 31 countries that have signed but not ratified the convention, together with the United States.
Recently, the former director of the Illegal Antiquities Research Centre was among the research group that got a large grant to study antiquities trade from the view point of criminology. They will gather and analyse the data on the movements and motives of traffickers. The team has already identified a key illegal trading route from Cambodia and Thailand through mainland Europe and on to the two main market destinations of London and New York. They will concentrate on studying and interviewing different parties at all levels along this route, including the middle men and police.
Since the convention has not been ratified, the British authorities concentrate on local heritage crime, including preventing unlawful excavations, and metal thefts from church roofs. English Heritage works together with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in order to tackle the problem; all parties have signed a memorandum on the matter. A number of local authorities, among them the Northamptonshire County Council, a party in the recent Castle Farm case, have also signed the document. This Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (ARCH) is working using a partnership model, but with the cuts biting any Heritage Police is a distant dream. Nevertheless, as the attempted rhino-horn theft from the Norwich Castle shows wildlife and antiquities and their illegal trade cross each other’s paths, and enabling rightful parties to enjoy legal uses of heritage and their profits instead of letting criminals to make money is worth a dedicated police unit, no matter how small.
Update in 2015: the heritage crime unit is reality and the plans were set up in late 2013. Now you can follow the Historic England Heritage Crime tweets!