Monday, March 31, 2008

'Molested', 'threatened', 'overpowered': The real cost of art crime

In last week's Museum Security Network digest (29th March), Steve Layne, a Museum Security Consultant, took issue with a previous (28th March anonymously-filed) post on the topic of museum security guards, which Mr Layne found offensive and insensitive.

"Museums need to accept the risks associated with taking their collections out to people," wrote the anonymous contributor, who apparently took exception to "inattentive and intrusive" security guards who "provide a false sense of security to the institution. Physically, 90% of them couldn't stop a determined burglar."

I sympathise with Steve Layne, who is laudably willing to speak up for under-paid (and often under-trained) security staff, but the anonymous writer surely has a point that hardened criminals will stop at nothing when raiding a museum or gallery. As far as I can see, nobody has yet devised a workable means of protecting an institution's cultural treasures that does not in some way impede the visitor experience. Meanwhile, museums and galleries employ what can only ever be a token security presence in what is surely a triumph of hope over hard reality.

What is rarely if ever commented upon in the numerous press reports of high-profile (and indeed low-profile) art theft is the emotional and, all too often physical, harm done to museum security personnel and other staff caught up in an art heist. In May 2007, three men armed with knives entered the Stockport home of art collector Ivan Aird, tied up Mr Aird and threatened his wife and two-year-old daughter before making off with two valuable L.S.Lowry paintings. To hell with the Lowrys. One can only imagine the long-term psychological effect such an event might exact on that young child.

But so fixated are we on the dollar value of the Lowrys, Picassos, Monets, Munchs and Warhols snatched in armed raids that we barely pause to consider the human consequences on those paid a pittance to look after the stuff in our museums and galleries.

For the record, here's a tiny sample of the trauma that some museum staff have suffered in recent heists (these were grabbed by from my own desk top, but imagine if you researched it more diligently). Put yourself in their shoes. Is it worth the minimum wage? Now remember that the Tate effectively paid Balkan thugs in order to get their Turners back.

August 2003
Two men dressed as tourists "overpowered a young tour guide" during a public tour of Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland and stole Leonardo Da Vinci’s, Madonna of the Yarnwinder

5 August 2007
Several armed and masked men entered the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice, "overpowered the personnel of the museum" and took four valuable paintings.

10 February 2008
Three armed robbers entered a museum in Zurich, "threatened the people present with a pistol and forced them to the floor", while two others took the paintings from the exhibition hall.

19 February 2008
Masked and armed criminals robbed a church in Doornik, Belgium, stealing a
very rare 8th century Byzantine cross plus 11 other valuable church objects. "Staff present in church were molested by the criminals."

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