Removal of art or artefacts from a gallery or museum - Theft Act 1968

Places open to the public in England and Wales

There are many places throughout the United Kingdom which are open to the public enabling members of the public to view specific items. These public places can be in the form of a museum whereby individuals will be able to view historical artifacts or they may be art galleries whereby individuals will be able to view artwork.

Whatever the purpose of the specific public place, one thing will remain the same. That the articles housed there are there for the purpose of people going to view them. Accordingly they must remain in that specific place. If they are taken the individual who has taken them will be guilty of a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968.

Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968

Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968 creates the criminal offence of removal of an article from a place open to the public.

Removal of articles from a place open to the public

Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968 states that where the public have access to a building in order to view the building or part of it, or a collection or part of a collection housed in it, any person who without lawful authority removes from its grounds the whole or part of any article displayed or kept for display to the public in the building or that part of it or in its grounds shall be guilt of a criminal offence.

What is meant by collection?

For the purpose of this section collection will include a collection which is put together for a temporary purpose. This will include a collection of paintings or artifacts which have been put on display in a museum or art gallery.

What happens if a collection is put together for commercial purposes?

When Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968 makes reference to a collection this is taken not to include a collection which is made or exhibited for the purpose of effecting sales or other commercial dealings.

What does this mean?

This effectively means that when, for example paintings, have been put on display in a commercial art gallery for the purposes of selling them this does not fall within the definition of collection for this offence under the Theft Act. Accordingly if an individual were to take a painting from such a collection then they would not be guilty of the criminal offence of removing articles from a public place.

Would that individual be guilty of a criminal offence?

That individual may not be guilty of a criminal offence under Section 11 however; in this scenario they would be guilty of the criminal offence of Theft under the Theft Act.

When will a place be open to the public?

For this offence it is immaterial that the public’s access to the building is limited to a particular period or particular occasion. Accordingly where a specific art gallery is open to the public only for a limited period of time for a specific exhibition if an article is taken during this time the offence under Section 11 will be committed.

What happens if the article taken is something that does not form part of a permanent exhibition to the public?

Where anything removed from a building or its grounds is there otherwise than as forming part of, or being on loan for exhibition with, a collection intended for permanent exhibition to the public, the person removing it does not thereby commit an offence under Section 11 of the Theft Act unless he removes it on a day when the public have access to the building.

If this is removed on a day whereby the public do not have access to the building then the offence of theft under the Theft Act will need to be established.

When would an article be removed with lawful authority?

Articles which are on display to the public may be removed with lawful authority for a variety of reasons. If articles are being moved to another museum or gallery, or if they are being removed for restoration or maintenance then they will be deemed to have been moved with lawful authority.

Will an individual be guilty of an offence under Section 11 if they believed they had lawful authority?

Under Section 11 a person will not commit a criminal offence if they believed that they had lawful authority for the removal of the item in question or that he would have it if the person entitled to give it knew of the removal and the circumstances of it. 

This will cover the scenario whereby an individual is under instructions to remove an article but the person who authorises it at the gallery or museum is not present.

What is the potential sentence for an individual guilty of this criminal offence?

The maximum prison sentence for an individual convicted of this offence under Section 11 will five years.