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Insider Theft, Fires, and Vandals Top List of Museum Concerns

​THE THEFT of four paintings worth $163 million from a Swiss museum in February is one recent example of how cultural property theft—the fourth largest crime category worldwide, according to Interpol statistics—adds up to $3 billion to $5 billion a year.

The case was atypical in that two of the pieces were quickly recovered in a car in a nearby parking lot. It was also atypical in that it appears to have been an outside job.

“About 90 percent of art thefts from museums are internal,” said FBI special agent Robert Wittman, who spoke at this year’s National Conference on Cultural Property Protection sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

There are ways to reduce the insider risk. “Look at your staff, your procedures for bringing researchers and experts in, making sure that when they leave, you know what they’re taking with them,” cautioned Wittman, who has been the Bureau’s main investigator on art crime for the past 19 years.

Wittman advises institutions to take minor thefts seriously, launching a full-scale investigation and interviewing everyone to establish a security culture. “Make it a big deal not so much because you want the one piece back but because you want to send the message that it’s not going to be tolerated,” he explained. In addition, he recommends that security meet with staff, and “let them know that this is a federal violation.”

Also addressing the insider threat at the conference was Robert Combs, director of security for the J. Paul Getty Trust, based in Los Angeles. He said that he was aware of at least seven insiders who had been arrested for stealing rare books and artifacts or historic documents from museum and library collections in the past 12 months. Two were museum curators and the others included an archivist, a librarian, a former custodian, and a summer intern.

Because insiders have such easy access, they can do tremendous damage, Combs noted. He said that one former archivist is suspected of stealing more than 80,000 items from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California—mainly objects given to President Reagan by visiting foreign dignitaries. A former Cambridge University Library employee was fined £325 for stealing a priceless antique Zulu pen, he said.

Making sure that their own works don’t get stolen is only half of the battle; museums must also avoid buying stolen goods accidentally when making acquisitions. Asked how a museum could ascertain whether or not artwork it wants to purchase is stolen property, Wittman said to be suspicious if the price is too low or there’s no history of ownership, although he’s seen 100-year old fake paintings with real provenance that goes back 40 years. “I get more fake cases than I do anything else,” he added.

Institutions should also make sure that artifacts from a country that prohibits their export came into the United States before the country made it illegal. “Make sure it’s iron-clad,” said Wittman, or your museum could face a public relations disaster.

Aside from collection thefts, another common security-related incident that museums, libraries, and cultural institutions face is fire. Combs, who used news reports between February 2007 and February 2008 to compile a list of 50 incidents at cultural properties, identified 10 fires during that timeframe.

As common as fires was a newer concern—commodity thefts: thefts of items not for their artistic value but for what their base metal is worth as a commodity. Ten thefts of bronze, copper, and gold artwork occurred.

“We’re seeing a huge trend in commodity thefts,” Combs noted. “They’re looking for anything that can be melted down.”

One such incident was the theft of eight large bronze statues by artist John Waddell, which were stolen from his Arizona ranch. They were only worth $5,000 melted down, compared to $500,000 as art, but the metal is easier to resell.

Thieves also sold to a local scrapyard for $900 a $125,000 bronze statue of a gold miner stolen from a Beverly Hills park. Robbers even stole the copper wiring that connected the Houston Library’s generator, causing the elevator, staircases, fire alarm, and emergency lighting to fail and forcing the library to close.

With regard to the fires, half occurred while the structures were being repaired, renovated, or otherwise under construction, which points to the need to maintain a fire watch whenever contractors are working on the building.

In one case, workers thought they had extinguished a fire caused by a heat gun they were using to remove paint. They then left for lunch, but the fire had moved into voids in the walls and spread, causing $100,000 in damage.

If a fire does break out, museum personnel should save whatever objects are at hand, rather than the most valuable pieces, because “by the time you prioritize, you’re probably going to lose a lot of other objects,” said Wilbur Faulk, executive vice president of the Cultural Property Protection Group, and also a presenter at the conference.

Other security incidents in 2007 included seven acts of vandalism. In one case, a visitor to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Avignon, France, kissed a painting by abstract American artist Cy Twombly, putting a lipstick stain on the $3 million artwork that appears to be permanent. The visitor, a 30-year old artist, told reporters she felt that it added to the painting.

In another vandalism incident, four masked protestors used crowbars and axes to destroy sexually explicit photographs by New York artist Andres Serrano at a Swedish gallery. And a visitor to the Milwaukee Art Museum pulled a 17th century painting that depicted David holding Goliath’s severed head off the museum wall and kicked a hole in it because he found it disturbing.

The list of threats includes concerns about the museum security system’s IT network, said speaker Steve Keller, of Steve Keller & Associates, Inc., a cultural property security consulting firm. Keller warned against the current trend of converging security system computers with other building networks, because it makes them vulnerable to hackers.

“Your computer will be tied up doing countermeasures against denial of service attacks,” which will disable the alarm system, he said, allowing burglars to strike undetected.

“Computer hackers have gotten into the CIA and changed the Web page…. They got into the FBI, the Pentagon... so if you’re not as paranoid and as concerned as I am,” said Keller, “you better be.”

—By Susan Mandel, a freelancer based in Arlington, Virginia.