Art theft has been around almost as long as there’s been art. So when it comes to protecting precious works, security experts have to be on their toes to make sure thieves don’t use their fingers to lift valuable objects.
The challenges of art security came to light today when news broke that thieves snatched two archaeological pieces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) last October during opening hours, steps from security guards. As reported by theMontreal Gazette , the incident is testing the facility’s policy of not encasing many of its items as well as the decades-long bond of trust it has with visitors – now numbering 500,000 a year.
AXA ART, which is insuring the stolen objects, then posted a video of CCTV footage of the suspect on YouTube with the hopes that the public will be able to help crack the case. Click here to see the footage.
The MMFA theft echoes an incident last year in China, as profiled by The New York Times. In this case, an amateur thief simply smashed several cases, stuffed nine valuable objects into his bag and ran out of the museum. He was later caught, but most of the items were never retrieved.
Meanwhile, in 2010 a single masked intruder broke into a Paris museum and stole five paintings possibly worth hundreds of millions of euros, including masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse. It was reported that the museum’s 15 million euro alarm system had been broken for three months and that CCTV cameras were not pointed at key entry locations.
So how do museums protect against art theft while still allowing public access to the very objects that the museum is heavily promoting? It’s a fine balance indeed.
Museum security professionals take an integrated approach to protecting art by incorporating high-tech surveillance equipment, motion detectors, entry alarms, infared detection and highly-trained security staff, among other measures, into a master security plan. And they test and revise that plan constantly.
Museum security expert Ton Cremers outlined a series of things to consider for museums in an article posted on Securitysource.com. Many of these principles also apply to private residences containing high-value art.
Start with the roof … The majority of thefts take place on upper floors or from the roof. So alarm systems should be attached to a building’s outer shell with special attention paid to upper floors and the roof.
Maintain vigilant CCTV systems … Cameras should be appropriate for each museum and each location within that museum. A one-size-fits-all approach may not work. Cameras should be constantly monitored, and they need to be regularly cleaned and serviced.
Watch the windows … Keep the most valuable items well away from windows or any physical obstacle that could become a ladder.
Think carefully about traffic flow … The manner in which museum-goers are guided through the items on display is a key part of the overall security plan.
Don’t rely on electronic equipment alone … The human element is vital to any museum security system. Constant patrols and a visible human security presence can deter would-be thieves while also providing eyes and ears if electronic systems fail, which does indeed happen.
Fans of the “Thomas Crown Affair” will know how suave and calm Pierce Brosnan looked in stealing that rare painting before jetting off to live with Rene Russo. But the reality is, alas, often much grittier. And if history is any guide, art theft will be a problem for eons to come. Proper security systems and planning can help minimize the effects of any Crown wannabes.