How can museums and galleries stop highly organised art theft? Andy Davis recommends an approach that combines a mix of security measures.

Photo of people in security workshop

The theft and looting of arts and antiquities is nothing new. The Vikings did it during their raids along the east coast of Britain, the Nazis did it during World War II and more recently ISIL did it in Syria with the plundering of Palmyra.

If you think like a criminal it is amazing how many ways you can think of breaking into a location

The Metropolitan Police Service places the global value of theft of art, antiquities and other cultural artefacts in the region of £3bn annually. One of the most infamous, and still unsolved art crimes, relates to the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The two thieves disguised as police officers entered the museum and stole art with an estimated value of $500m.

Organised crime

Art crime is very rarely carried out by opportunistic thieves. Instead, it’s done by highly organised crime gangs that operate trans-nationally, conducting research, surveillance or even placing insiders in target locations.

In 2012 here in the UK, organised crime gangs broke into museums and stole jade and rhinoceros artefacts for a dealer in the Far East. The value of the goods was estimated to have been between £17m and £57m. Not all the goods have been recovered but many of the criminals have been arrested and are serving long custodial sentences.

Assessing the risk

Many larger museums have upgraded their security systems to provide enhanced levels of protection for their exhibits, but many smaller museums and private individuals still hold art worth millions of pounds and do not have the resources to fund state-of-the-art protection systems.

Many turn to an alarm company or CCTV installer thinking they will have the equipment to protect them. Unfortunately, in most cases the wrong advice is given and a system that provides part of the solution is installed, spending the available budget.

A better approach is to assess what threats exist, how much of a risk exists from each threat and how vulnerable you are to being a victim. If you think like a criminal it is amazing how many ways you can think of breaking into a location.

The next stage is to think about how you could prevent that event from occurring. Would you use locks, alarms or guards? These are appropriate options to minimise the risk and increase levels of protection.

An independent security consultant with an appropriate professional qualification (and not associated with a product or service) can help identify the threats, risks and vulnerabilities, and provide a series of options or recommendations. These should be in the form of one of four different security measures:

  • Physical: Walls, doors, locks and safes.
  • Technical: CCTV, alarm systems and radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices.
  • Operational: Access control procedures, method of art delivery and search procedures.
  • Educational: Staff briefings, security advisory posters and e-learning workshops.

Ideally, the security measures that are put forward should overlap with each other to create greater strength in depth. By building up protective layers, a more robust approach is taken so that when criminals conduct their surveillance they will identify security enhancements that may act as a deterrent.

Savings on insurance

For smaller museums and galleries, it is important to get the balance right so that money is not wasted. By approaching the protection of your assets sensibly and methodically, there are greater opportunities for cost savings as insurers should charge less because of the steps you have taken.

By being aware of the threats, risk and vulnerabilities that exist, while at the same time getting the right levels of security and increasing staff awareness levels, protection will be increased and risks reduced. The benefit being that the art and antiquities we love and cherish are there for a wider audience to appreciate for years to come.

Andy Davis is Chair of the International Arts & Antiquities Security Forum.

Link to Author(s): 
Photo of Andy Davis