Art thieves scrap stealth for brute force.

A cheat sheet for the news.
Aug. 26 2004 3:27 PM

The Crimes They Are A-Changin'

Art thieves are scrapping stealth for brute force.

Thieves scream for The Scream
Thieves scream for The Scream

Earlier this year, I interviewed Dutch security expert Ton Cremers on the future of museum theft. "With today's technology, if someone wanted the Mona Lisa, or those Vermeers in the Frick, they would never try to sneak in," he predicted. "They would just go there with their guns drawn and grab it." Cremers (who runs www.museum-security.org) got only the famous painting wrong: On Sunday, when a trio of men stole Edvard Munch's The Scream (and one of the painter's almost equally prized Madonna s) from Oslo, Norway's Munch Museum, they did it in face masks, waving guns, with an escape car at the ready.

One article on the sensational crime quoted an FBI spokeswoman describing the Munch heist as "a very unusual case, because it was an armed robbery." That's true enough. Museum theft has historically been a genteel sort of crime, conducted, for the most part, with legerdemain and nimble-footed alarm evasion. But among those who follow the topic closely, the Munch robbery is seen not as an anomaly, but as a sign of things to come.

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Over the past decade, an increasing number of art thefts have taken place in the daytime during business hours. (Interpol and other police authorities have been keeping close tabs on this trend.) And in the past few years there has been a spike in the violence of such operations. The problem, paradoxically, is newly sophisticated security measures. Imagine how the criminal sees it: In the ideal heist, you steal works when the museum is empty—there are no witnesses, and you have lots of time to flee before the theft is noticed. But museums have been installing better "perimeter defenses"—including motion detectors, body-heat sensors, and bulletproof glass—to prevent just such crimes.

Fortunately for thieves, however, museums can't have alarms sounding every time visitors enter a viewing gallery, and criminals have adjusted their tactics accordingly. In the most famous recent case, Stephane Breitwieser, an itinerant Alsatian waiter, spent his weekends touring the smaller museums of France, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and Belgium, amassing a treasure trove of paintings and other objects worth tens of millions of dollars. (His takings included works by Antoine Watteau, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and Lucas Cranach the Elder.) In every case he walked into the museums during business hours and easily filched the art, at most having to jimmy open a display-case lock or throw a work out a window for later retrieval. He never carried a weapon.

Naturally, security firms have responded to this trend by creating better "asset protection" devices, which secure specific artworks, not just areas within the institution. These include RFID tags, which are affixed to works and allow radio antennae to track their locations, and motion sensors built directly into the frames.

The more widespread such systems become, the harder it is to steal using subterfuge. Which leads us ineluctably to armed robbery—by far the riskiest tactic, but also the surest way to actually leave the premises with works in hand. While the Munch theft was certainly the most high-profile violent art heist, it was not unprecedented. Last year, for example, a gang of thieves sledgehammered display cases containing art deco jewelry at the Antwerp Diamond Museum. Another team drove an SUV right into the Rothschild family's English mansion, crashing through a reinforced window to launch a four-minute, multimillion-dollar raid that garnered them a passel of antique gold boxes. Perhaps the only upside of the Munch heist was that nobody was killed; in May, thieves slit the throat of a guard during a robbery at Antigua's Museum of Colonial Art.

And don't dismiss the Munch case as something that could only happen in peace-loving Scandinavia, where, as reports have hastened to note, the Oslo police don't carry guns. A few hours after the Munch heist, I received this e-mail from an art-loving police detective friend: "I enter Manhattan museums, auction houses, and galleries in plain clothes daily, with my compact semi-automatic 9mm or 40 caliber pistol strapped to my hip, shoulder, or ankle. The only place that has found it at the door was the Jewish Museum—which has intense security, for obvious reasons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the worst. After 9/11, they started lining up people at the entrance so the Keystones could wave a metal detector wand around the bodies of visitors and look inside bags and purses." But perhaps those wand-wavers at the Met need some more training. On two visits this month, the connoisseur cop reports, he was not stopped for packing his piece.

While we're on the topic of art theft, there are a few other points that coverage of the Munch case has left largely unexplored. Many reporters marveled at the fact that the Munchs were not insured against theft. But the value of the two paintings stolen Sunday would conservatively be estimated at $100 million; using the industry-standard rate, 0.1 percent of value per annum, that's $100,000 for two paintings alone. Fees like this can be too steep for chronically underfunded museums to bear, so instead of insuring their whole collections, museums and collectors often just insure themselves against the first, say, several million dollars' worth of theft. In essence, they're gambling that they can guess how many major works thieves could abscond with in a single go.

Another complication: Once an insurance company has paid out the policy's coverage on a stolen work, the company owns the piece, technically speaking. If and when the lost art ever turns up, the insurers systematically offer it back to the owners in exchange for a refund of the insurance payout. Since art generally appreciates in value, most clients gladly pay up. But it's not unheard of for major companies such as AXA Art Insurance to get stuck with pieces whose value has dropped or whose original owners are simply short on cash. Because insurers have such a major incentive to retrieve the artworks quickly, many employ sizable private detective teams drawn from the former ranks of Scotland Yard, the FBI, and other police agencies.

Finally, a word on ransoms. After news of the Munch theft hit the wires, many wondered why on earth anyone would steal such a recognizable painting—obviously, The Scream would not be a good candidate for resale—and news stories noted that art thieves sometimes try to obtain ransoms for the works they pinch. Officially, of course, museums and governments refuse to pay such ransoms. The rationale: Paying them may speed the return of a particular piece, but it encourages theft in general. That said, victims of theft frequently strike arrangements that straddle the fine line between offering bounties and paying ransoms: Third parties (like, say, the private detectives in the employ of insurance companies) offer rewards to dubious characters for aid in recovering works; often no arrests result, as was the case when a Titian painting was recovered in a suburban train station outside London. (The painting had been cut from its frame and was rolled up inside a messenger bag.) Whether the people paying out these sums are private collectors, museums, or insurance companies, the logic is similar: "For a few hundred thousand dollars, I can retrieve a multimillion-dollar masterpiece. Sure, it might encourage another robbery, but chances are they won't hit me again." Financially (if not ethically) speaking, that's solid thinking.

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