Art Museums Balance Access against Security

Article excerpt

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. …