A sharp rise in thefts of historical artefacts from churches has come amid warnings that organised gangs are stealing stained glass windows to sell on the black market.
There was a 75% increase in Heritage Crime attacks in churches owned by the Church Conservation Trust (CCT) in 2018, with theft and vandalism offences seeing the biggest increases.
CCT figures reveal that last year saw the highest number of recorded incidents since their records began in 1999, as rates of theft and vandalism nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018.
Bespoke church window panels designs being “stolen to order” for underground traders could be contributing to the trend, which saw 35 thefts last year, according to experts.
Churches have invested in roof alarms and tightened security systems to deter potential thieves, but there are fears that break-ins may continue to rise if more robust action is not taken.
It comes after a panel with the image of the prophet Ezekial was “stolen to order” from the 16th Century chapel in the secluded Leicestershire village of Withcote in 2016.
The “irreplaceable” panel, which gave the chapel links to the court of King Henry VIII, was suspected to have been robbed in response to an offer already made by underground antique dealers.
As well as the theft of bespoke panels, vandals are smashing glass windows in order to steal money from inside some of the church buildings.
A CCT spokesperson told The Sunday Telegraph: “In recent years at the Churches Conservation Trust, we have noticed some particularly serious Heritage Crime attacks on stained glass windows. One particularly devastating attack took place this year at St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, which saw a panel of the world famous medieval glass smashed by a vandal as they broke into the church to steal money from the cash register.”
The CCT, which cares for over 350 historic churches at risk in England, added that the theft of metal roofs and flashings are also a popular target for criminal gangs.
Tougher sentencing guidelines introduced in 2015 in relation to heritage assets allowed the courts to impose greater penalties for crimes involving the theft of historic objects for the first time.
The guidance established a “standard approach” to sentencing, in which non-financial factors, such as “loss of confidence” and “great disruption” were to always be considered by judges in sentencing.
Mark Harrison, the Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England, works closely with the CCT and police forces in England to reduce criminality in and around historic sites.
Mr Harrison said: “You cannot value something like this as it is made by incredibly skilled artisans and as such, are unique. Modern glass workers can make copies but they will not be the same. Once the object has gone, it has gone forever.
“It would be extremely difficult to dispose of such an object through normal markets and we are working very closely with Operation Opal, the specialist unit that deals with Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime, in order to identify those people who are dealing with illicit cultural property.
“The unique composition of Medieval glasswork can make it an attractive target for those criminals who have the ability to secure a financial benefit from their criminal behaviour.”