Police smashed down doors in dawn raids aimed at cracking a £20 million crime gang in the West Midlands today.
The move followed a string of heists at museums and an auction house in which rare and priceless works of art were stolen.
Up to 800 police from 26 forces, including the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, were involved in the massive swoop which targeted homes in Wolverhampton and Walsall as well as up to 30 in London, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Northern Ireland. Nineteen people were arrested in total.
The action was linked to crimes carried out in a four-month multi-million pound spree between December 2011 and April 2012 throughout the country during which treasures are thought to have been stolen to order.
A 32-year-old man was arrested at an address in Bentley in Walsall on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary.
A suspect, aged 44, was not at a house in Low Hill, Wolverhampton, when police swooped but was detained at another of the addresses in Cambridgeshire.
A squad of police armed with battering rams and a chainsaw with its motor running leapt over railings to reach the front door of the house in Low Hill at around 6am. It was opened by an elderly woman in a nightdress. Officers searched the address and a caravan outside. A separate address in Bentley was also raided.
The investigation has been triggered by the theft of Chinese artefacts and a rhinoceros horn which were taken during raids across the country including at Durham University’s Oriental Museum, Gorringes Auction House in East Sussex, Norwich Castle Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Some of the property has since been recovered but several treasures are still missing. A dozen people, including two men from Walsall, have been convicted and jailed for a total of more than 40 years for their roles in the break-ins but detectives still want to trace key figures.
The pair from Walsall were part of a gang which spent 30 minutes chiselling into the Durham museum through an outside wall to grab Chinese artefacts.
They were arrested after a nationwide manhunt following the £2m raid.
Derbyshire Chief Constable Mick Creedon, who takes the lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers in serious and organised crime, said: “Today’s operation follows a long and complex pan-European investigation involving officers from 26 police forces and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency.
“The series of burglaries last year had a profound effect on museums and similar institutions and we are committed to bringing all those who were involved in the conspiracy to justice.”
Loss adjusters have issued a reward for information which leads to the recovery of the property and the conviction of those responsible.
Hunt for masterminds behind museum raids - See today's Express & Star