|Major art heists often feature audacity that defeats even the most thorough security protocols |
Museum security, like art, is ever-changing. Traditional security practices like manned guarding alone are not sufficient to keep thieves at bay. Modern security technologies such as video surveillance, motions detectors, intruder alarms and other physical security devices also play an equally important role in securing museums and its art work. Regrettably, having all these security measures in place does not always guarantee safety and thieves sometimes still manage to steal art work through deceptive tactics.
“The Mona Lisa” by Leonardo, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (twice, but two different versions), “Poppy Flowers” by van Gogh (twice), “Harlequin Head” by Picasso, and “Jacob de Gheyn III” by Rembrandt (a staggering four times). What do these paintings have in common? They have all been stolen from museums.
Museum security – best practices
Any museum director must strike a delicate balance between providing a sanctuary and a showplace for art works. Galleries seek both to protect and to welcome. For the legitimate visitor, museum security should be nearly invisible. For the would-be criminal, it should be apparent, but not so obvious as to make hostile reconnaissance a worthwhile practice. Spend a few hours in a selection of galleries in any major city and you’ll note that on the whole, attendants are indeed welcoming. They tend to be amiable blazered men in their 60s who are filling in time while on a pension from a former career in the police or armed forces. You would back them to prove zealous in confiscating a selfie-stick from a tourist (largely banned, though frequently still used) but might be less confident of the outcome if they had to confront a determined thief or vandal.
Galleries need guards who are physically strong, observant and not beyond early middle age. (A standard gag among criminals is that staff are often of the same vintage as the exhibits they are guarding.)
Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, makes the pragmatic point that gallery curators should assess thoroughly the security measures at any museum that they are going to entrust with a loan item. In 1994, the Tate in London lent two paintings by Turner to a museum in Frankfurt that shares its premises with a music college and at the time had no perimeter security. The Turners were stolen by thieves working for Serbian gangsters and a ransom in excess of $4.5 million was paid by Tate from charitable monies with little attempt made at apprehending the criminals. One of the paintings was recovered from the garage of a Frankfurt mechanic who had a sideline as a Dean Martin impersonator. Yes, really.
CCTV vs. human response
A standard gag among criminals is that staff are often of the same vintage as the exhibits they are guarding
The consensus among curators that technology has much to offer but will never replace the human response is difficult to argue with, but only if we are confident that guards will prove to be consistently alert and conscientious. Scepticism about the merits of video surveillance prompts many museums to pay more attention to installing CCTV in their gift shops than in the exhibition halls. Traditional curators are also reluctant to allow a battery anywhere near a painting for fear that acid may be leaked. They argue that unless CCTV is scrutinised non-stop by guards (and few institutions have the manpower for this) it merely gives a record of the theft. This was the case three years ago when a Salvador Dali painting was taken from a brand-new gallery on Madison Avenue. Management had a high-resolution clip from an IP camera and little else to go on.
Use of proximity alarms
The principal focus of London-based ArtWatch UK is to protect works from inappropriate restoration techniques and careless or demeaning treatment. But Michael Daley naturally keeps an eye on security issues and has some horror stories to relate that suggest proximity alarms are not being used. He says: “Only recently I was shown a photograph of a curator signing a form by placing the paper on the vertical surface of a Rembrandt.” He continues: “At a preeminent gallery in the U.S., I saw a group of teenagers having their photograph taken and being instructed to keep moving back so that they could all be in the frame. They ended up leaning against a canvas with one boy’s elbow depressing it sharply. Only when I shouted at them did either the guard or their teacher notice what was happening.”
London’s National Gallery theft incident
Museum parlance for somebody who enters a gallery as a visitor through the normal route and remains after hours is a “stay behind.” A bizarre theft involving a stay behind (possibly better categorised as a protest rather than a serious attempt to steal) occurred at London’s National Gallery early one morning in August 1961. As part of a campaign against the perceived injustice of low-income pensioners being charged to buy a license to watch public television broadcasts, Kempton Bunton eased his way out of a toilet window leading on to Trafalgar Square carrying a portrait bust of Napoleon by Goya under his arm. He had arrived as a regular visitor the previous day and hidden overnight.
Bunton had done his research and was aware that the gallery’s infrared motion sensors were switched off while cleaners readied the building for the day. A disabled former bus driver in his 60s and weighing 240 pounds, he was an unlikely burglar. The next time you watch the Bond film Dr No (shot six months after the theft) look for Sean Connery walking past an oil painting in the villain’s underwater Jamaican headquarters. “So that’s where it went!” The painting was returned safely in 1965 when, with an anticlimactic gesture, Bunton deposited it at the left luggage lockers of a Birmingham railway station.
Scepticism about the merits of
Biggest art theft in US history
Major art heists often feature audacity that defeats even thorough security protocol. An unsolved 1990 theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum involving 13 paintings valued at $500 million began when a pair of criminals presented themselves at the gallery door late at night dressed as policemen and claiming they were responding to a call amid the hoopla of St Patrick’s Day celebrations. They were buzzed in and one of the two duty guards foolishly left his desk (which featured a panic button.) Both guards soon found themselves duct-taped to pipes in the basement. The theft is the largest ever art haul and included Rembrandt’s only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” This painting remains in our popular culture, being seen in films and even featuring in an episode of “The Simpsons.”
"They have cameras at McDonald’s but we weren’t allowed to install them"
Ingenuity can also extend to diversionary tactics and escape methods. In December 2000, criminals brought an already busy Stockholm city centre to gridlock by abandoning a pair of cars outside major hotels and setting them afire. Meanwhile, at the National Museum, their colleagues stole a Rembrandt and two Renoirs, making their getaway along the river Norrström in a tatty second-hand speedboat they had bought a few days earlier. In a remarkably blunt and no doubt emotional press conference, Agneta Karlström of the museum said: “They have cameras at McDonald’s but we weren’t allowed to install them.” Staying in Scandinavia, art security specialists noted a depressing development in Oslo in 2004 when one of the several versions of “The Scream” painted by Edvard Munch was stolen from the Munch Museum. Thieves had been armed before but in this case they were wielding machine guns during opening hours and gave the impression they would not hesitate to use them.