The Great Swiss Art Robbery

By Coffin, Bill | Risk Management, April 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Great Swiss Art Robbery


Coffin, Bill, Risk Management


In the most dramatic art heist in Swiss history, three masked gunmen robbed the Emil Buehrle Collection in February, stealing four masterpieces valued at nearly $160 million. Located in a modest 19th-century Zurich villa, the museum had sparse security considering its valuable collection--the thieves had to contend with only a solitary guard. The four stolen paintings were also conveniently hung in the same small room beside the museum's foyer, creating a virtual one-stop shop for the armed crooks.

Fortunately, two of the stolen works, "Poppies near Vetheuil" by Claude Monet and "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" by Vincent van Gogh, were recovered the following week. "The Boy in the Red Vest" by Paul Cezanne and "Count Lepic and His Daughters" by Edgar Degas remain missing.

The Emil Buehrle robbery came only two days after thieves stole a pair of Picasso paintings worth a total of $4.5 million from a cultural center in nearby Pfaeffikon. In a caper reminiscent of a Hollywood film, law officers believe the thieves hid in the museum until closing, after which they simply walked out with the precious works, "Glass and Pitcher" and "Horse's Head."

These two robberies underscore the difficulty that the art world--and museums in particular--has in safeguarding its inventories. Most museums simply lack adequate security and insurance due to a lack of either funds or will--or both.

Tight security is indeed expensive. It is not much cheaper to buy insurance, which can be difficult to procure even for wealthy owners. Security also presents a catch-22 to many curators. Tight security means that guards and conspicuous safety barriers will interfere with the public's ability to enjoy the art--the primary mission of every museum. Thus, many feel they must decide to either obtrusively protect their collections or trust the public.

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