Museum takeaways

Is the rise in museum thefts due to the economic crisis?
Ton Cremers
The Museum Security Network has been online since December 1996. In the past 15 years, there have been more than 40,000 reports of incidents including thefts, fake and forgeries, vandalism, and embezzlement.

The number of thefts of sculptures from gardens and towns has grown tremendously, so much so that we have stopped recording them.

This year alone, stone-age axes have been stolen from the Yorkshire Museum, a number of Lord Nelson artefacts from Norwich Castle Museum; two statues of Buddha from Ulster Folk and Transport Museum; artefacts worth £2m from the Oriental Museum at Durham University; and a model lifeboat from the RNLI museum in Whitby. This list is far from complete.

Thieves have wrenched the horns off stuffed rhinoceroses in European museums and officials at Europol, the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, claim the number of thefts of rhinoceros horns has increased sharply in Europe during the past year. Since 2011, the agency has recorded 56 successful and 10 attempted thefts.

According to a recent report by the Council for British Archaeology and Newcastle and Loughborough universities, 75,000 heritage crimes were committed in the UK in 2011 and experts have warned that the alarming figures show that Britain’s history is being destroyed.

So do all these stats add up to an alarming development, or is it just business as usual? Several newspaper reports and internet blogs claim there has been a rise in museum thefts because of the economic crisis and security budget cuts.

So far, official police statistics do not substantiate these claims – statistics are always a bit late, and per annum; 2011 figures are not yet available. It is quite possible there has been a rise in reporting rather than a rise in incidents.

The link between the present economic crisis and thefts from museums is impossible to prove. Only a very small percentage – 5%-10% – of art crimes are solved, so our knowledge is based on anecdotes rather than facts.

Some of the more infamous thefts from museums took place before the economic crisis hit the western world. Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera was stolen in 2003 from the Vienna Museum of Art History. That theft took only 58 seconds. The value of the Saliera: €35m.

The facts justify the conclusion that security was far below standard. The largest art theft outside war time – the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist – took place in March 1990. Again, it appears the security was lacking.

In 2010, several paintings were stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Afterwards, it was revealed that part of the security system had been out of order for about a year.

All these thefts took place not because of budget cuts or economic crisis, but rather because of neglect at a managerial level. Security and safety is part of museums’ core business, but too often they do not get the attention they deserve.

Museums by nature find themselves caught between showing their most prized and often most valuable objects to million of visitors, and safeguarding these objects for present and future generations. It is a difficult, but not impossible, task.
In case the economic crisis really becomes a threat to security budgets, why not sell those rhino horns at $30,000 per kilo, and replace the originals with resin copies?

Ton Cremers is the founder of the Museum Security Network

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