Art museums balance access against security

Since "The Scream" by Norwegian angst-artist Edvard Munch was stolen by armed robbers last Sunday, the media have been asking every art expert in sight, Why does this keep happening?

Art thefts, though not often as high-profile as the broad daylight robbery in Oslo, are persistently on the increase worldwide. This latest heist once again spotlights the holes in international law, the high costs of insurance and security, and the delicate balance that institutions must strike between protecting works of art and displaying them openly.

One question of course is: What do the thieves hope to gain by stealing "The Scream," an iconic image plastered on dorm-room walls and used in television and print advertisements?

The simple answer, according to Karl-Heinz Kind, who specializes in the recovery of artworks for Interpol, is money. "This is easier [for thieves] to achieve with items that are not so well known. But [it's] nearly impossible with very well known items like the Leonardo da Vinci [stolen a year ago from a Scottish country house, and still not recovered.]" The same is true for the Munch paintings.

Mr. Kind says the first step for thieves is, relatively speaking, the easiest - stealing the item by stealth or by force. "But then they are suddenly faced with a big problem that they didn't foresee: how to get rid of it and make money out of it."

The most likely scenario, he adds, in the case of a famous painting, is that the thieves will try to obtain money from the owner or the insurers.

Demanding a ransom (as of press time, no demands for money had been made for the Munch paintings) or attempting to sell an artwork can be a dangerous game for thieves. Burglars have been known to wait as long as 10 or 20 years before seeking payment for the painting's return, in the (often mistaken) assumption that the police are less likely to prosecute many years later.

The situation is complicated by the fact that museums often aren't able to devote sufficient resources to insuring their art, which continues to climb in value, according to Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, speaking on National Public Radio.

Museums, he told NPR's "Talk of the Nation," actually file more insurance claims for fire damage, accidents, and vandalism than for theft. And institutions that count on funding by municipalities are limited in how much insurance - and security - they can afford.

Sadly, the city of Oslo recently gave the Munch Museum additional funds for security, but the daytime theft occurred before improvements could be made. And besides, cultural institutions are reluctant to make their buildings into fortresses, or to arm their guards.

Few museums are even willing to discuss their protective measures. Security at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for example, is so secret, that few staff members know anything about it. Dawn Griffin, head of public relations, won't comment, naturally, but says that even in times of tight budgets, security is one thing museums like the MFA will not compromise.

Art museums are not the only institutions concerned with preventing theft.

In Europe, for example, a number of historic properties contain important works of art.

Security is even more of a test for historic houses than for museums. Many of England's National Trust properties, for example, are country houses in remote places. Sian Evans, spokeswoman for the Trust, says that the organization is "reluctant to put the contents of their houses in glass cases." But, she says, "there is a constant effort to achieve a balance between the safety of such objects and making them appropriate to the ambience of the house." She, too, declines to talk about security.

While safeguarding information is important, secrecy on the part of some collectors and institutions can actually hamper recovery of stolen artwork.

One organization noted for art-crime investigation is London's Metropolitan Police Service, known as the Met, whose arts and antiques squad has achieved some fame.

In fact, this small bunch of experts was involved in trapping the thieves of another version of Munch's "The Scream" stolen from Norway's National Gallery in 1994. (The painting was recovered and put back on display two years later.)

The Met's website shows photos of recently stolen works. Currently the list includes an astronomically valuable Rubens called "Landscape with a Rainbow," but the Met's policy is not to divulge where or when this - or any other - painting was stolen.

Interpol, on the other hand, in Lyon, France, makes maximum use of publicity. With 181 member countries, Interpol is not an investigative body, but it coordinates information. It also features recently stolen works of art on its website and on a regularly updated CD-ROM. More than 26,000 stolen items are featured (many of these, however, are surprisingly small, such as individual coins or books).

However eager Interpol is to provide information on stolen art, it is dependent on member countries' willingness to share information. Many are less than cooperative. Some thefts are not even properly registered, or the owner does not, or cannot, provide a good description of the item. In that case, Interpol can't list those stolen works.

"What is needed is to improve the information flow," says Kind. The way to start this, is having a reliable inventory before a theft occurs.

"This is a very basic problem for all the third-world countries," he says. "Even in museums, they sometimes have no basic inventories, no photographs of works, so what can you do? Also," he adds, "this is valid for private owners: They need to make inventories of their property."

Despite such difficulties, Interpol has had many successes. One of the most remarkable, considering the time it took, was the recovery of several paintings stolen from a Romanian museum in 1968. The art, discovered in New York, had been missing for 30 years.

Maybe the Munch will be back, screaming, on its wall in Oslo, somewhat sooner than that.

Other high-profile art heists across the world

The two Munch paintings stolen in Oslo are just the most recent example of high-profile thefts of paintings that have yet to be recovered. Others include:

July 31, 2004, In Rome, 10 paintings worth $5 million belonging to a collection housed in a historic hospital were stolen from an unguarded restoration room. Among those lost: "La Sacra Famiglia" by the 16th-century artist Parmigianino; "Flagellazione" by Caravaggio mentor Cavalier D'Arpino; and "Testa di Vecchio" by Lanfranco, a master of the High Baroque.

May 19, 2004, Pablo Picasso's "Nature Morte à la Charlotte," worth $3 million, was reported missing from a restoration studio in Paris's Pompidou Center.

Dec. 16, 2003, "Special 21 (Palo Duro Canyon)" by Georgia O'Keeffe was stolen from the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Valued in excess of $500,000.

Aug. 27, 2003, In Scotland, thieves posing as tourists overpowered a lone guide in Drumlanrig Castle to steal da Vinci's "Madonna with the Yarnwinder," valued between $40 million and $80 million.

July 20, 2002, In Paraguay, thieves tunneled into the National Fine Arts Museum and stole a dozen paintings, including a self-portrait by Tintoretto, "The Virgin Mary and Jesus" by Esteban Murillo, "Landscape" by Gustave Coubert, and "Woman's Head" by Adolphe Piot. Police say the 80-foot tunnel took months to dig.

July 17, 2001, In Germany, an Andy Warhol portrait of Lenin disappears from a Cologne warehouse. It had just been sold to a gallery owner for around $700,000.

Dec. 22, 2000, In Stockholm, three armed and hooded men snatch two Renoirs and a Rembrandt from Sweden's National Museum and then escape by speedboat. Police later recover Renoir's "Conversation" by accident during a drug raid.

March 18, 1990, In Boston, two men disguised as police officers pulled off what remains the biggest art heist in history - handcuffing security guards inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and then taking an estimated $300 million in art. Among them were three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and five by Degas.

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