How safe is art in U.S. museums?

Many measures instituted to prevent theft of objects

August 26, 2004|By Glenn McNatt and Linell Smith | Glenn McNatt and Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Could thieves be plotting to steal Matisse's Pink Nude from the Baltimore Museum of Art? Degas' Little Dancer? The 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy at the Walters Art Museum?

Since the dramatic theft of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream in Oslo this week, art lovers have been wondering about the security of the treasures in their communities.

Although not even state-of-the-art detection systems can protect a painting in a public gallery against a thug with a gun, American museums equipped with such high-tech deterrents as digital closed-circuit TVs are more secure than ever, say administrators and security consultants.

And you'll just have to take their word for it.

"We actually do not discuss security for reasons of security," says Mary Jane McKinven, a press officer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, basically summing up the response of most museum professionals, including those at the BMA and the Walters, to questions about security.

Obviously the most secure art collection would be one that is locked away in a storage vault, museum officials say. But that would defeat the whole mission of museums, which is to make great artworks accessible to the public.

"Museums have struggled for years to balance their stewardship responsibility with making their artworks accessible to the public and also ensuring the safety of their visitors," said Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums in Washington.

"In terms of the collections, we have put in place significant and rather robust security measures that to a large extent reduce the risk of theft from outside parties," Able said, adding that the vast majority of museum art thefts are inside jobs committed by people who work there.

Still, there are limits on the kinds of security measures that museums can use.

"For example, we do not put guards with loaded guns in our museums, for the same reason that most bank guards are not armed," Able said. "You don't want people shooting at each other with patrons in the line of fire. Human life is of the utmost importance."

However, museums have a variety of ways - some obvious, others not so obvious - to deter potential thieves.

The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, "has several layers of security measures, such as cameras and guards, that have been strengthened over the years and that are constantly kept up to date," said Anne Mannix, the BMA's director of communications, who also declined to provide specifics.

Echoing McKinven, she said: "Our policy is not to provide details of our security procedures, and that is one of our security procedures."

But museum visitors can see many of those protections, some put in place since 9/11, for themselves: metal detectors and bag checks at museum entrances, video surveillance cameras and guards, motion detectors that beep if anyone gets too close to an object.

"Eighty percent of the thefts from institutions are generally by people who have keys to the kingdom," says Robert Wittman, an art specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Even people who have Ph.D.s and access to the collection are not beyond reproach. Highly trusted people have gone in and taken things if they had access."

He remembers the 1988 theft of dozens of small Asian artifacts from the Walters Art Museum by a night-shift security guard. The pieces were recovered several weeks after they were stolen.

"It was really a wake-up call," says Walters' director Gary Vikan. "The person had rearranged the cases to cover up what was gone. Now we photograph the cases. It was a painful lesson but we learned quite a bit."

What makes a gallery safer?

"Anything you can do," Wittman says. "It's like putting a club on your steering wheel. Naturally a good burglar looks for the easiest target."

The FBI agent says the most effective crime deterrent is putting "line of sight" guards - sentries who can see one another - in the galleries. Thieves are much less likely to try to sneak something past them. He also mentions newer surveillance cameras with digital video capability that save video images for longer periods of time.

During the past four years, the FBI has recovered more than $100 million worth of art and cultural property, including the historic Worden Sword stolen from the Naval Academy in 1931. Two years ago, the FBI helped find five Norman Rockwell paintings stolen from a Minneapolis gallery in 1978.

Steven Keller has spent 18 years devising high-tech security systems for art museums and such historic properties as George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. He says protection systems for most jobs range from $250,000 to $1,250,000, depending on the nature of the collection and the state of the building. But institutions also need to pay attention to the human factor.

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