A highly respected expert in art theft in Europe recently came out in a UK newspaper with claims that museums there were doing too little to protect their collections from. Tan Cremers, the former head of security at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and now an ombudsman in security matters, said that museums across Europe were “lethargic” in reacting to (art) thefts at other institutions and wrongly blamed reduced funding for an inability to increase spending on improved anti-theft measures.” In other words, if something occurred at a museum in relative proximity, nearby facilities should be on higher alert and increase funding to meet a higher threshold of threat.
Facing Art Theft
The idea of museums strengthening their defenses only when a specific threat is apparent would seem absurd if it weren’t common in the art world? To be fair, the context of his remarks was the rash of thefts of rhino horns in the UK by organized gangs and their sale in Russia, China and the Middle East. If a gang suddenly surfaced in this country and began assaulting museums, a quick turn to more extreme measures would be expected. We haven’t heard of organized gangs being responsible for art theft in the U.S., with the exception of the Gardner heist, but it’s certainly possible. Organized gang evokes the image of thugs rather than Pierce Brosnan-esque sleuths, bent on force rather than deception.
Not just Europe but a World-Wide Concern
Cremer’s accusations were aimed at museums in Europe, but should be heard by any facility displaying art anywhere in the world. I share his feeling that the museum security system is far down on the agenda, after design and building, fundraising galas, acquiring collections and signature works and some salaries. Too many museums are doing too little to protect the very thing that justifies they’re very existence. The damage done by theft is far greater to an institution’s reputation than failure to land a coveted work of art. Galleries and private collectors, by the way, are far more egregious in recognizing the need for art security solutions.
It would be nice to be able to easily categorize threats and build defenses specific to the method. Can a facility protect against pilfering or surreptitious concealment and armed gangs with the same protocol? With effective and available layered security they can get pretty close.