It wasn’t Security Camp, but I recently got to travel to Boston with Protection Services director Pam Godfrey for a museum security conference. The International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection and the Fogg Art Museum hosted participants from the US and Europe for four days of lectures, certification sessions, networking, and technology demos. Lecturers included Noah Charney from the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Ellie Bruggeman from the Museum Security Network, founding director of IFCPP Steve Layne, as well as representatives from museum and library facilities on the Harvard campus. We heard a lot about emergency response planning, workplace violence, and art theft, along with taking side trips to Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts.
The great thing about this conference, and the National Conference hosted annually by the Smithsonian, is that they are oriented around museums and other cultural institutions, such as libraries and historical properties. Other conferences, such as the ASIS annual shindig, are huge and cover the whole spectrum of security issues, including securing nuclear facilities. Not much fissionable material here at the IMA, except Mindy when contractors want to bend safety rules.
Though speakers would frequently wander off into worst-case-scenario land when discussing fires, thefts, and other incidents, it was good to be reminded about all the things that can, and have, gone wrong in cultural institutions due to poor planning and awareness. The Gardner Museum theft, the largest art theft in history, and the shooting incidents at Columbine and Virginia Tech were often cited as examples of poor or nonexistent planning.
Moving on to the sexy topic of art theft… Noah Charney, author and founder of ARCA, discussed his views on art theft. With characters like Dr. No or suave art thieves in movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment, the media tends to perpetuate the pop culture image by only covering the big, attention-getting thefts like at the Gardner Museum and Munch Museum.
In reality, there are few if any Dr. Nos out there. Common, run-of-the-mill criminals commit the thefts, looking to use art as a means to obtain other things, such as drugs or weapons. According to research, trade in stolen art ranks third behind drugs and arms. Organized crime is responsible for the majority of thefts, with the IRA being mentioned as an example of one group who stole art to trade for weapons.
Charney also mentioned an interesting point that stolen antiquities are especially difficult to recover because there are no records to reference. It is easier to falsify provenance when there are no existing auction records, sales receipts, photos, insurance policies, or loan agreements. It’s as if the art doesn’t exist until thieves introduce it into the black market.
Steve Layne, Ellie Bruggeman, and Charney all pointed out that employees, volunteers, or others with a special relationship to the institution commit the majority of museum thefts (upwards of 80%). Bruggeman discussed thefts at the Army Museum in Delft, The Netherlands, where a curator, over a period of several years, had been cutting pages from rare books and was selling them to a shady art dealer.
The speakers also voiced frustration with public perception of art crime as mainly affecting rich people and their frivolous hobbies. As a result, if a criminal is actually caught they often times merely lose their job only to move to a position in another unsuspecting institution. Society in general does not see the activity as the theft of our collective “family photo album,” as one speaker put it.