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Cultural Property Crimes Roundup: From Vandalism to Theft to War

Pieces of cultural property are often high profile and at high risk. The Mona Lisa, now housed in the Louvre in Paris, France, has been stolen, vandalized, and attacked many times, including just this week by a man wielding cake and shouting for people to think of the earth.

The butt of art vandals’ ire is often not the art itself, but the attention they get by striking cultural property as a means to an end. The end in question, of course, varies—as you'll see below.

After a rash of recent cultural properties incidents, here’s your roundup of the latest issues facing museum security teams.

Man Smashes Ancient Greek Artifacts

A man—identified by the Dallas, Texas, police as Brian Hernandez, 21—allegedly broke into the Dallas Museum of Art late on 1 June by striking a glass door repeatedly with a steel chair. Police said he then damaged three ancient Greek artifacts, including a bowl from the sixth century B.C., a lidded container from the fifth century B.C., and an amphora from the sixth century B.C. The attacker also seriously damaged a ceramic container by a contemporary Native American artist, The New York Times reported.

An arrest warrant for the attacker said that guards in the museum questioned Hernandez and he said “he got mad at his girl so he broke in and started destroying property.” Apart from the art, display cases, a computer, a phone, a bench, and signage were also destroyed, NBC New York reported.

The suspect was arrested at the scene, and no one was injured. The damaged items were insured, and they have a value of several million dollars. The exact cost of the damage is unknown until a formal assessment can take place.



Vandals Behead Statues, Steal Relic from NYC Church

St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church—known as the Notre Dame of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, CBS News noted—was closed for construction. Thieves took advantage of its vacancy to strike, cutting through a metal protective casing and stealing an 18-carat gold and jewel-encrusted tabernacle valued at $2 million. The relic, a box containing Holy Communion items, is irreplaceable because of its historical and artistic value, said the Diocese of Brooklyn.

The tabernacle had its own security system and an “electronically operated burglar-proof safe” with one-inch thick steel plates that enclose the box, according to a guidebook about the church.

Statues of angels flanking the tabernacle were decapitated and destroyed. A safe in the church was also cut open, but nothing was inside.

The church had a surveillance system, but the DVR was stolen.



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Artwork Stolen During Museum Party

On 30 March, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City held a party for the opening of its Whitney Biennial exhibition—a showcase of contemporary art. But one piece wasn’t on display for long. On 24 May—almost two months after the party—police were informed that one of the pieces of art had been stolen, likely during the party, according to The Independent.

The museum confirmed to Artnet that an element of one of the exhibition’s art installations was discovered missing, but it has now been located and is back in the museum’s possession.



Hockey Fans Climb Fragile Statue in Helsinki

Plywood fences were not enough to protect the status of Havis Amanda in downtown Helsinki as ice hockey fans climbed the statue and swam in the fountain to celebrate Finland winning the world championship, according to YLE News. Thousands of people converged on the market square, knocking down the fences. Security personnel hired by the city to protect the bronze statue could not control the crowd. Some people climbed and hung onto the statue, which has several fragile parts—including the neck and wrists—that could prove prone to snapping.

Initial assessments of the statue show it is in decent condition, but further analysis will be conducted.

According to Helsinki Art Museum Director Maija Tanninen-Mattila, the fountain and statue will be renovated in coming years, but she is skeptical that they can be made “celebration-proof.”

Elderly Tourist Trips into Painting

Some art damage is accidental. At an exhibition in Rome, an elderly American woman tripped—potentially over a low platform—and fell into a 17th century religious painting, St. Francis receiving the stigmata by Guido Reni. The incident resulted in a “slight superficial tear” of one and a half inches on the painting’s surface.

The tourist isn’t the first person to have a close call with this painting—the low platform the art is installed on allegedly tripped up a journalist at the show’s opening, Artnet reported.

Ukrainian Museums Looted, Destroyed

And some art damage is quite intentional. By late April, Russian forces seized more than 2,000 pieces of artwork from museums in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, moving them to Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk. Museums have also been severely damaged during Russian airstrikes, according to The Washington Post.

In early May, the historic home of Ukrainian poet and philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda was destroyed in an artillery strike, along with a museum of his work, reported CNN. The location was in a tiny village near Kharkiv, but far from any obvious military targets like a railway or ammunition depot.

“The attack appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, and not the first since the Russian invasion began in February,” the article said.

According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May, Russian forces have destroyed nearly 200 heritage sites in Ukraine so far, including multiple  churches. As of 9 May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) verified damage to 127 landmarks in Ukraine, including 11 museums, 54 religious buildings, and 15 monuments.

ARTNews maintains an ongoing list of the cultural properties that have been attacked, looted, damaged, or destroyed in the conflict so far.

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