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No Artistry in These Crimes

​THANKS TO HOLLYWOOD, art thieves are imagined as suave playboys in dapper suits who drive sports cars on beachside roads by day and dance through motion detecting lasers in all-black attire by night. They are assumed to be technological geniuses (but never nerds) who can outsmart the most secure of security systems. And, of course, they are stealing the paintings for the sheer challenge, as in the Thomas Crown Affair, for example, to be displayed in their own private collections in their villas on the Mediterranean.

“That’s pure fiction,” says Karl Heinz Kind of the stolen works of art unit at the Interpol General Secretariat in Lyon, France.

Who Steals Art
Rather than being suave and wealthy adventurers, art thieves are mostly insiders and opportunists. For example, individual collectors are typically victimized by people they have had some business contact with. “[O]ftentimes, you’ll have somebody who’s an employee or a worker take an interest in that art and then find the opportunity to steal it,” says Detective Don Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department’s art theft detail.

With regard to theft from a museum, an insider could be an employee, a visiting scholar, a volunteer, or a contractor. Insiders can find out about security vulnerabilities and can often commit theft without raising the normal alarms that a thief breaking in through a window would generate.

When it’s not an insider, it’s likely just a common criminal. Many times, the offenders are not art crime specialists, but people with a history of burglary or armed robbery, says Kind, adding, “Very often people think [art thieves will] be highly specialized in artwork, and really they are not.”

Art thieves are also not always highly skilled burglars with impressive technical equipment that can circumvent the most expensive security measures. In addition to being insiders or getting help from insiders, art thieves are often taking advantage of faulty security systems. For example, in last year’s high-profile robbery at the Paris Museum of Modern Art, a lone masked robber was caught on CCTV stealing numerous paintings, including a Picasso and a Matisse. In that case, the robber overcame a partially broken security system.

If art thieves aren’t debonair geniuses, how do they get away with such high-value prizes? Well, one problem just alluded to is that these priceless items are not always given the protection they deserve. According to Kind, it’s not unusual for museums in Europe to have security system issues.

“If security were always tops, these thefts would not happen,” he notes. They happen because security is poor or deficiencies have never been addressed.

Security system troubles and difficulties in securing museums and galleries tend to be more prevalent in Europe than America, says Robert Wittman, a former senior investigator with the FBI’s art theft crime team who now works with Robert Wittman, Inc., a security and recovery firm.

“The houses are so old. Museums are so old…they don’t lend themselves to good security systems…. And [w]hen you’re looking at a castle in Germany with walls that are four feet thick and stone, it’s really hard to do good security…. the architecture itself is a whole different problem,” Wittman states.

The type of venue may also present a challenge. For example, a church, which is meant to be open and to welcome the visitors typically won’t put the figures “on stents behind iron bars just to prevent them from being stolen,” Kind says.

Another issue is that museums may not properly assess vulnerabilities. While movies and television shows, for example, often show the thief taking the painting off the wall or from a highly secure display case, that’s not where items are most vulnerable, explains Steve Layne, CEO of Layne Consultants and the founding director of the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection (IFCPP), which provides museum security training. “As far as where items most often disappear from, it’s not hanging on exhibit, it comes out of either collection storage or artwork that’s in a preparation phase [for transit],” he says.

Art theft investigations present unique challenges compared to other types of burglaries. One is that there are fewer tools in place to deal with fine art theft. For example, the automated property system that allows officers to enter stolen property in Los Angeles is designed for serialized property, says Hrycyk, but most pieces of art do not have serial numbers. Additionally, artwork can be difficult to describe in order to put out alerts on what to look for.

Art theft units. To improve the odds in art theft investigations, it helps to have law enforcement officers who specialize in this type of crime, as Hrycyk does. One reason it helps to have officers devoted to art theft is that they will be able to develop ties to the art community—the dealers and auction houses where stolen art often ends up. Hrycyk did that when he started working in the LAPD art theft unit. He says another benefit of having a devoted art detail is that the officers build an institutional memory, which can help them remember stolen artwork from years before or recognize patterns.

The FBI set up an art crime team in 2004; Wittman helped start the team. The members receive training on art and artifacts. The team has recovered more than $142 million worth of items.
The FBI team also maintains the National Stolen Art File, which is an index of stolen art items reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies throughout the world. Interpol has a more comprehensive database of 37,000 pieces of stolen art or artifacts. That database was put online in 2009 not only to facilitate law enforcement searches but also to make it easy for the public, especially art sellers and buyers, to check whether a specific piece has been reported stolen.

That initiative has already reaped results. Kind had a case involving an item stolen in Afghanistan from the Kabul museum back in 1994. The item “had been put on auction in Munich, and the auction house using the public online access to Interpol’s database identified the item [as stolen], withdrew it voluntarily from the auction, and even informed the prosecutor so that it could be seized,” says Kind.

The availability of the online database is a game changer. Before it went up, dealers and auction houses could claim to be acting in good faith if they were caught dealing in stolen art, because they had no way to check if the items were legally obtained. But now, says Kind, how can they make such a claim “if they don’t make the minor effort to make a check against the database which is publicly available and free of charge?” In essence, running that check becomes “more or less almost an obligation to do something in order to show at least some effort, the lawyers would say, of due diligence,” he notes.

Motive and method. It helps with investigations if investigators understand the motives of art thieves and their method of operating. That is another benefit of dedicated art theft units.

With a scholar, the motive may be related to actual passion for the item, but as already discussed, temptation and opportunity are more often the motivating factors. There’s another motive in Europe, however, notes Wittman. “It’s their ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he says. “The criminals stockpile them, they use them to entice officials and police departments and whatnot to give them breaks as far as their charging and as far as their sentencing when they get caught for doing other crimes. Because remember, the people who are doing these armed robberies are not just doing art theft. They’re also doing car theft or running drugs, they’re doing gun running, money laundering, all different types of criminal activities. It’s just one more thing that they’re doing.”

With regard to how they operate, although there are some crime rings that work in art theft, Kind says that often a person will be acting alone when they are in the first phase of art theft, which is the actual commission of theft. They will then turn to fences or larger rings when they move onto the second phase, which is introducing paintings into the market.

It’s important to try to decipher the motive of the theft and the means of marketing it and turning it into cash, says Hrycyk, in order to know where to take the investigation.

“We have to try in some way to divine the sophistication of the thief, because we’ve found that art can show up at swap meets, at flea markets, at thrift stores, or it can be sent out of the country…. We had a $126,000 sculpture that was stolen from a house, and we found out later on that the guy sold it to a neighboring thrift shop for $50.”

Obviously, knowing which path to pursue can make a huge difference, “so we try to see whether this looks like a random burglary by somebody,” or a carefully executed and targeted theft, Hrycyk explains. He notes that “sometimes you can tell by the items that they steal that they have no idea what they’re taking. They’ll leave artwork that is worth four or five times what they’ve taken just because they’re not familiar with the artists.” By contrast, he adds, “if it looks like there’s sophistication involved, then we know, okay, this may end up at a major auction house, it may show up in a New York art gallery, or it may be taken overseas.”

Recovery. Wittman says that most art recovery occurs when the items are reintroduced on the market either through undercover operations where the criminals don’t know they are dealing with the police or when someone who finds the artwork doesn’t know it’s stolen and innocently puts it up for public sale. Wittman estimates that as much as 99 percent of the recovery occurs when someone is trying to sell the item.

Often law enforcement must rely on auction houses and resellers to recognize that they are dealing with a stolen item, which is why the Interpol database is so valuable.

Publicity also can help add to that awareness, as can rewards. “I always say insurance companies should be right in there right away putting out rewards [for the return of the stolen art], because that does generate leads, and that’s one of the best ways to get this material back,” says Wittman.

Wittman cautions, however, that mistakes are often made in the reward process. For example, he notes, it’s important not to use a police phone number or not to identify the reward phone number as a police number. If there is no police connection, then the thieves will assume it might be an insurance company, and they are more likely to think they can call, turn in the item, and get the reward without getting into trouble.

Wittman also suggests that the reward be phrased vaguely as being “up to” a certain amount, rather than having it set at a specific amount that authorities will be held to.

Museum Solutions
Museums and galleries can take a number of steps to protect against internal threats and reduce the risk of art theft from insiders. One key is to conduct screening and background checks on potential employees, says Steve Keller, president of Architect Security Group, Inc. However, he points out that in many cases, such as with maintenance crews, there is no way to screen everyone who will be doing work in your building.

That leads to the importance of access control. Paul J. Steiner, Jr., is security manager at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. He says that all of the staff, whether they’re permanent, temporary, or contractors, must enter and exit the museum through the same entrance that is staffed 24 hours a day. Bag checks are conducted on every single person on the way into and out of the Hall of Fame, and records are kept on who enters and leaves the building.

But it’s not always easy to convince museums to do bag checks, says Layne. “When we advise museums [that] have had a loss problem that they need to check things coming in their doors and going out, the typical answer is ‘we’ll never do that here.’”

Steiner says his museum’s policy is explained at orientation, and it is applied equilaterally, no matter what the person’s rank or stature within the museum. “Working at the rock hall is truly an experience [so] most people are willing to put up with what may be perceived as a minor inconvenience to be here.”

Keller says that the museums he works with do the bag checks as well, and he recommends explaining to employees that it’s a way to protect them, as well as the items in the museum, because employees who have undergone checks are less likely to become suspects if something goes missing.

He adds that staff members just need to be educated about the rationale for the search. They need to understand that it’s like being in a bank and having access to millions of dollars. If it’s properly explained, there won’t be a morale problem, he says.

It’s also important to pay close attention to areas in the museum that items historically go missing from, like collection storage for pieces not on current display or artwork being prepared for shipment to other museums for special exhibitions. To protect those areas, managers must examine the physical security layout of the building and figure out how people get to those areas and ensure that they would not be able to take something without going through a checkpoint before exiting the building.

Technology. Museums also should make sure they have the appropriate alarms, motion detection, and intelligent video analytics. For example, Steiner’s museum uses the Acuity Visual Communication Technology, which can tailor algorithms for each piece of artwork or item on display, telling the cameras what sort of motion to ignore.

Another technology that may help museums in the future is RFID that would include encrypted identification information and vibration sensors that alert personnel when the item is being moved, but the tags would need to be attached discreetly to the artwork (and without harming it) so they are not seen while the work is displayed. Most of the sources interviewed for this article had not seen much use of RFID yet in the art world. “We’re waiting for somebody to come up with a great method that most collectors and museums and auction houses will buy into,” says Hrycyk.

People power. Still, technology has its limits. The museum security experts interviewed for this article stress the importance of having humans on hand to secure the collections. Many museums have downsized their security detail due to economic constraints, however, and others have turned to contract security.

Layne emphasizes that the guards, whoever they may be, need to get proper training. Surprisingly, he says, this gets neglected even by large museums, because they don’t want to spend the money and take staff time.

Proper training entails much more than teaching security personnel to watch for insider theft, he notes. “The primary focus is life safety, so they need to know things about emergency preparedness and evacuations, and dealing with disabled people and so forth. And they need to know what are the requirements of an objective patrol, what is a patrol supposed to do. And what about confrontations, because they do have confrontations all the time. They tell people ‘don’t touch the artwork’ and now you’ve got a confrontation,” Layne says.

Ultimately, museum security programs have to use a holistic approach, incorporating well-trained personnel and taking advantage of modern technologies, says Kind.

While art thieves may not be as clever as portrayed in fictional accounts, the threat to irreplaceable objects is very real. But with help from technology and specialized law enforcement efforts, theft stories can often have a happy ending—albeit without the Hollywood flair.