AS average citizens and aficionados alike become fascinated over the heady prices that fine art is commanding today - so does the cunning thief. Rising market values for paintings and other objects have prompted an increase in the number of art thefts around the world, industry officials say.
The latest casualty is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here, where an estimated $200 million worth of art was stolen last Sunday. The heist was a severe jolt to the staff of this small, but world-class, institution. Thieves made off with 13 items including a rare Vermeer painting, three Rembrandts, and five Degas works in the largest art theft ever in the United States. The works stolen were not insured for theft.
As a result of this and thefts elsewhere, museums are reviewing security measures in a world where not even the most sophisticated surveillance equipment can be 100 percent effective.
At the Gardner, security guards allowed two men posing as police officers to enter the museum during the night. The men disconnected the state-of-the-art alarm system and spent two hours removing selected works.
Anne Hawley, the Gardner's director, called the crime ``a barbaric act,'' but expressed confidence the objects would be returned. ``The public's access to art is continuing to be eroded by these kinds of activities,'' she said during a press conference.
While precise figures for the number of stolen art and antique objects are unavailable, theft ``certainly seems to be on the rise,'' says Margaret O'Brien of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), a clearinghouse for art-theft information. In 1988, the foundation had 24,000 files on stolen art, compared with 32,000 files today. Thefts reported to IFAR occur mostly in Italy, says Ms. O'brien, with the Netherlands in second place. Many pieces go underground for years.
Soaring prices and ``the corresponding publicity the prices get seem to encourage more theft,'' says William Martin, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, who traces stolen art. ``We have a big problem in this city,'' mostly affecting private collections and galleries, Mr. Martin says.
Recent major thefts include the taking of three van Gogh paintings, worth $72 million, from the Kroeller-Mueller Museum in the Netherlands in 1988. They have since been recovered. Last year, a Gauguin watercolor disappeared from a customs warehouse at London's Heathrow Airport, and liturgical silver relics were taken from a seminary in Monteriggioni, Italy.
In some cases, ransom is demanded from the art's owner or the owner's insurer. Stolen paintings have been discovered during drug raids, too. Drug cartels ``trade paintings back and forth to circumvent money-laundering problems, or as a commodity, instead of trading money,'' says Charles Moore, a private investigator in Brockton, Mass.
Since the art taken from the Gardner Museum is so widely known, criminals will have a hard time unloading it. ``There can't be many people in the world that in a few weeks won't become familiar with that list of pictures,'' says Jay Cantor, director of museum services for Christie's in New York. Both Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses are underwriting a $1 million reward for information leading to the return of the works.
Art industry experts agree boosting security is the key to reducing art thefts. Fortunately, ``over the last four years there have been vast improvements in alarm systems for galleries and museums,'' says Gregory Smith, vice-president of Smith International Adjustors, which handles art-theft claims.
``The problem is,'' says detective Moore, ``you can have the most sophisticated system installed, but it's only as good as the human element involved.'' He advises museums to have several different alarm systems.
Around the world, police agencies tend to cooperate well in searching for stolen artwork, says detective Martin, who recently attended a world art conference in Lyon, France, hosted by Interpol, the international police agency. But art-theft laws in various countries need to be coordinated, he says. According to some laws, a person who buys a work of art in good faith gets full title to it, ``even if it's stolen,'' Martin says.
``In the museum community, there is a high degree of sharing of ideas'' concerning security, says Anne Evans, administrator of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. A rising number of thefts cause ``people in the museum business to be extremely careful. ... We're appalled by the kind of loss the Gardner has suffered. ... For us, it's a good reminder that all the effort we put into security is worth it.''