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The Times quotes Suzanne Marriott on the legal ramifications of stolen artefacts

Close to 2,000 artefacts worth millions of pounds are believed to have been stolen from the British Museum by one of its senior curators. 

George Osborne, chairman of the museum’s trustees, has said that recovery efforts are underway and some artefacts have already been recovered.

Suzanne Marriott, Partner and Head of Art & Luxury provides comment for The Times on the legal ramifications of stolen artefacts and and explores what happens if an individual has unwittingly bought stolen goods.

“If you buy stolen goods, the general rule is that you are not the legal owner even if you paid a fair price and didn’t know that the goods were stolen. The person who originally owned them is still the legal owner.

“Any individual who has unwittingly bought stolen artefacts is legally obliged to return them. They must stop using said artefacts - if they don’t, or if they fail to report them, they could be arrested for handling stolen goods. However, while handling stolen goods is a crime, an individual is unlikely to be arrested if they didn't know the goods they bought were stolen.

“If they know who the legal owner of the goods is, the individual should inform them (in this case The British Museum) that they have their goods and let them take them away. If they don’t give them back and the owner finds out they have them, the owner can apply for a court order to make them return the goods. If the person has spent money on improving or repairing the stolen goods, they may be able to claim compensation for the value of these improvements or repairs.

“If the stolen goods are returned to the original owner, it is possible to take legal action for breach of contract for compensation against the person who sold them. This is because the law says that any seller of goods must have the right to sell those goods before they can legally sell them. If an individual bought the goods after 1 October 2015, they have the legal right to a refund.

“They might, however, have to check if it is worthwhile taking action to get compensation as a trader who is involved in selling stolen goods may be difficult to trace. It can also be a slow and expensive process. This case is also potentially tricky if the British Museum didn’t have the right to own them in the first place, and are not considered the legal owner. In many instances, the goods may have been on loan to them, or other countries may dispute ownership of the items.”

Read the full article in The Times here (subscription required). 

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