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
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
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
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. …