Monday, June 7, 2010

Art Theft

It is the ultimate nightmare for a museum director to have artworks or objects stolen on their watch. So the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris is no doubt not too happy about the theft two weeks ago of five paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Leger from his museum.

What makes it rather worse is that it appears the Museum’s alarm system had been broken for almost two months and there were three night time guards in the area at the time. Apparently they were “dozing” and “saw nothing” (which is what normally happens when you doze). Not that the insurers will worry, as apparently none of the works were insured, being owned by Paris City Hall, which self insures. The stolen art market is something which slips under the radar in terms of its extent, but is actually second only to the illegal drug and arms trades in value, being worth some US $6 billion annually. These five paintings are estimated to be worth some US $125 million and join the 170,000 stolen and missing pieces in the Art Loss Register.

Most of these pieces are stolen from private homes (witness the recent theft of a ₤80,000 painting by the reclusive “guerrilla” artist Banksy from the supermodel Kate Moss’ home in London). But where do these artworks end up? The view seems to be that either:
a) They are stolen by criminal gangs to use as collateral in drugs and arms deals and will eventually reappear on the market; or
b) They are specifically targeted by collectors and will disappear into private collections. As the BBC pointed out after the Museum of Modern Art thefts, if you wanted to start a modern art museum these five paintings would be high on your list of acquisitions as between them they tell the story of modern art’s emergence.

What is the likelihood of a major heist happening in a public gallery in Australia? Realistically, small for a number of reasons. Our major collecting institutions are newer, fewer and less exposed than European ones. They are almost universally in purpose built structures rather than in converted houses in cramped streets with plenty of back windows. And if a theft does take place there is the issue of how to smuggle it out of the country, a process so much easier in Europe with open borders.

But that is not to say it cannot happen, the most famous recent example being Van Mieris’ Cavalier stolen from the Art Gallery of NSW in 2007, and valued at over $1 million. Museums therefore need to be aware of the latest security technology. No one system is going to be foolproof, and the latest thinking combines CCTV surveillance with RFID tagging such as the ISIS Aspects Arts System.

While certainly more effective than dozing guards, if the thieves turn up with a gun however, such as when Munch’s The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum in Norway, there is not much that can be done to stop them.

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