Tue, Feb 07, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The UK’s great gold-theft crisis

With its value at a record high, gold has never been more attractive to thieves. Now burglars with metal detectors are targeting the homes of British South Asian families for their collections of high-quality ‘Indian gold’jewelry

By Emine Saner  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

Two small faces pull the curtain back in a side room and peer round to see who is at the door. After they run back inside, their mother, Mrs Rashid, unlocks the front door. Five weeks ago, she came home one evening to find the door ajar. The downstairs floor of her house was relatively untouched, but upstairs the bedrooms had been ransacked — drawers opened, wardrobes emptied, clothes and belongings scattered everywhere.

“It was such a huge shock,” she says, sitting on the sofa, her voice breaking slightly.

Her husband, Mr Rashid (neither want to give their full names), a big man sitting across the room, shakes his head.

“They took it all,” he says.

The thieves who broke into this semi-detached house in Earley, near the town of Reading to the west of London, stole about £70,000 (US$110,000) worth of gold jewelry.

To those who are not from a South Asian family, it might seem remarkable to own so much valuable jewelry, but families such as the Rashids (Mr Rashid runs a small business) live in ordinary houses and are not particularly wealthy.

Their gold collection — elaborate necklaces, rings, earrings and bangles — is treasure that has been handed down from generations of their families in Pakistan or bought as wedding gifts.

It’s our savings, our security, says Mrs Rashid, visibly upset.

If, in future, the family needed money, they would have sold some pieces.

“It’s like paying a mortgage for 20 years and then having a house worth thousands of pounds afterwards — it’s the same thing with gold,” she says.

“Our parents gave it to us, we would have given it to our children, they would have given it to their children,” her husband says.

They tried to put their gold in the bank, they said, but “there were no lockers available. Everyone is looking for one.”

With other investments looking distinctly shaky in the economic crisis, last year gold prices reached record levels. In the fall, an ounce reached a peak price of £1,194; today it is worth about £1,100 and analysts predict it could reach a new peak later this year or early next, as people seek safer investments, and demand for gold jewelry rises with the growing middle-classes in India.

Asian gold (sometimes called Indian gold) is a broad term that covers jewelry bought and held by South Asian families and is often passed down through the generations. It tends to be of the highest quality — often 24 carats, the purest gold — and it has vastly increased in value, sometimes to the point where a family can’t afford to insure it. Thieves know that some South Asian families may have a large collection of gold at home, and it is these houses they target.

There are no figures for the number of gold thefts, let alone the theft of Asian gold, but everyone I speak to believes the number of robberies is increasing.

Last year, several police forces in areas where there is a large South Asian community, such as the city of Leicester and the town of Slough, ran awareness campaigns after a spate of opportunistic robberies — there have been several reports of women who have had their gold jewelry snatched in the street — and burglaries. For a while, an attempted gold theft was a line of inquiry in the murders of Carole and Avtar Kolar in Birmingham last month, though the police later ruled this out.

Mr Rashid shows me the window in the downstairs bathroom that was broken and where the thieves must have got in. He thinks the house was being watched, because he noticed a silver car outside the front some days before.

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