Museums seen as soft target

There has been a significant increase in thefts from museums and galleries this year
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Theft from museums and galleries is not a new phenomenon, but after several years of falling crime levels at UK institutions, thanks largely to improved security, a recent spate of high-profile burglaries has put the sector on maximum alert.

As Museums Journal reported last month, thieves have so far this year made off with artefacts from the Yorkshire Museum, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The £750,000 Wenlok Jug was stolen from Stockwood Discovery Centre in May.

These burglaries come in addition to the widely reported heists of Chinese objects from Durham University’s Oriental Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as well as an attempted raid on the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Museums across Europe have been advised to remove all rhino horns from display after a series of smash-and-grab raids, while the theft of metal has also been on the rise. Several valuable pieces of public art, including a £500,000 Hepworth sculpture, are believed to have been stolen by scrap metal thieves.

Arts Council England (ACE) is reluctant to point to any trends just yet, and with few up-to-date statistics available, it is difficult to say whether there has been a general rise in museum and art-related crime, or just a spike in the number of high-profile cases.

Internationally, art and antiquity theft is estimated to be worth £3.8bn – twice what it was a decade ago. Such objects are seen as a safe haven for legitimate investors during times of economic uncertainty, and this demand is also fuelling black-market prices.

Booming economies in other parts of the world are also having an impact. Commentators believe that the targeting of Chinese objects is related to oriental antiquities selling for record prices on the international market.

In April, a 900-year-old bowl from the Song dynasty was sold for a record £16.8m in Hong Kong. According to one curator of Chinese objects, media coverage of the rocketing prices of such artefacts, which tend to be small and easily portable, has made thieves pay particular attention to them. “The highly inflated valuations of the objects stolen doesn’t help the situation either,” added the curator.

The price of rhino horn has been outstripping gold on the international market for some time, owing to its use in east Asia as a cure for cancer. John Minary, a museum security consultant and former detective, says the growth of China’s middle-classes means demand is unlikely to slow in the near future.

Crime wave

Cultural institutions in many areas of the UK have reported increases in other types of crime. Out of 13 museums surveyed by Museums Journal, four reported a discernible increase in crime and anti-social behaviour since the economic downturn (see chart), with all of those citing incidents of metal theft.

Metal thefts from London museums were 12 times higher in 2011 than in 2006, according to figures from the London Metropolitan Police.

A key factor linking all these crimes, says Minary, is the view among criminals that museums are soft targets with high rewards. He says organised gangs that would once have set their sights on banks or cash-in-transit vans have turned their attention to less-protected institutions.

Museums and galleries have always been faced with the problem that rather than locking valuables away in impenetrable vaults, they have an obligation to provide public access, particularly to high-profile items.

The theft of the Wenlok Jug from a high-tech security case shows that even the most advanced anti-theft measures can be relatively easy for thieves to overcome.

Complacent attitude

Although several museums responding to Museums Journal said they were prioritising security, Minary believes that many institutions remain complacent and need to embed protective measures more thoroughly across their organisation.

This includes training staff at all levels to spot suspicious behaviour, such as visitors examining windows or walking against the normal foot-flow, and investing in CCTV with longer recording periods.

Unfortunately, several museums are being restricted in the actions they can take because of budget cuts.

The director of one major museum service said: “We are losing front-of-house security staff and having our budgets reduced for buildings maintenance and electronic security, all as a direct result of budget cuts.”

ACE offers advice to museums, galleries and archives with security concerns. Contact

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