Magazine article Security Management

From the Grave to the Cradle

Magazine article Security Management

From the Grave to the Cradle

Article excerpt

Grave markers become part of stone walls. Memorial angels adorn home fireplaces. Cemetery ironwork is recast as patio furniture. Today's grave robbers aren't as much interested in cracking open coffins as in wrenching plaques off cemetery walls, swiping urns sitting near tombs, and prying stained glass windows from mausoleums. The booty then makes its way into suburban backyards and folk art collections via antique dealers, auctions, and flea markets.

These present-day grave robbers have faced little resistance. Cemeteries are typically ill-defended. Police treat the problem as minor, and some antique dealers are eager to cash in on the demand for folk art, such as Puritan gravestones, say experts. David Shillingford, who works for The Art Loss Register, a firm that maintains a database of stolen artwork, says that he has noted an increase in theft of cemetery items in the past few years.

With that increase, a few organizations have been pushing to raise public and police awareness, track down stolen items, and force the adoption of federal legislation that would crack down on the problem. A conference to address the issue was recently held by the Association for Gravestone Studies. Among the preservationist groups assembled were the National Cemetery Conservation Foundation (a New Orleans organization founded after a well-publicized raft of cemetery thefts there) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

One significant goal of these groups is the documentation of funerary items so that they can be tracked. Apart from gravestones with names on them, artifacts are hard to identify. "None of this stuff is documented," laments Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, executive director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network, an organization devoted to preservation of cemeteries and recovery of stolen items. And without documentation, it is extremely difficult to report a theft or track an item. "One angel looks like any other," she says.

Even when items are documented, this documentation must be accessible. As Shillingford points out, "cops can't go checking hundreds of databases." Moreover, recovered artwork sometimes sits in police property rooms for long periods, until it has to be auctioned to make room for other items. …

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