Art Theft & Security


“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” This quote, attributed to Pablo Picasso, is a controversial one to many people. The concept is that all art is built upon previous works, so much so that to just copy a concept would be ludicrous, one should copy the entire thing and claim it as their own. Examples of this type of ‘stealing’ can be seen throughout the world of art history; for example Rubens copied almost exactly Caravaggio’s “Entombment,” changing only a copy of figures and the hair color of the subjects. Eduoard Manet took the basis for his “Luncheon on the Grass” from Raphael’s “The Judgement of Paris;” [1] this shows it was common practice to use older artwork like this as reference and tool for building new artwork. But this type of stealing is used for presenting new ideas and works to the art world and is entirely different than art theft itself.

Art theft is cultural looting. Art theft and plundering or destruction of cultural items has almost always been used by regimes and conquerors as a “supplementary means to conquer, annihilate, and humiliate the enemy.” [2] This was done throughout history from the beginning of modern conflict, to World War 2 and the extensive and systematic plundering of artwork by the Nazis, to modern times when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in hopes of achieving a cultural victory for Islam. But what of the lone thief or gang of thieves that steal modern artworks today? These thieves are not conquerors to say the least, most are taking advantage of weakness in the human system-their desire to display art to the public-and using it for their own profits. That being said, even though it is not labeled as such, the stealing of artwork is a crime against humanity. Artwork is on display for everyone and every culture and it should not be the innocent victim of thieves.

On February 12, 1994, two men approached the National Art Museum in Oslo with a ladder and in a matter of 60 seconds they had broken through a window and cut Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from the wall with wire cutters. The heist was caught on security cameras but this did not stop the thieves nor help the police much in its recovery. The security at this time in the museum was almost nothing, the window was not alarmed, the painting was not secured, and the security guards were not equipped to handle the theft in any way other than by calling the police. In 2004, another version of “The Scream” was stolen (there are many versions of “The Scream” including a tempera on cardboard, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard, and lithograph version [3] ) from the same museum, this time not under cover of night and with a ladder, but with a .357 handgun and in broadview of all patrons. While this heist was armed robbery, the patrons of the museum still stated they could not believe that the painting was only secured to the wall with simple wires, none of which when cut or pulled sounded an audible alarm. On the other side of the Atlantic, the biggest heist in United States history occurred on March 18, 1990 when men disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, bound the security guards and made off with $300 million in artwork. [4] Security guards at the time noted the moustaches of the fake police officers and stated they looked comical but did not want to interfere with police business. In 2010, a thief broke a lock at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris and took several paintings, including works by Matisse and Picasso. Museum, “officials later admitted that the alarm system had not been fully functioning for several weeks.” [5]

The misconception involving art theft is that high tech thieves are cracking expert security systems for high profile pieces of art; the truth of the matter is that art theft if perpetrated by amateurs and professionals, security is lacking in most galleries or collections, and that thieves are taking any piece of art, not just high profile targets.


Art theft is not a new business. In 1911, one of the more famous heists occurred when three men who spent the night in a supply closet stole the Mona Lisa. The men covered the painting in a blanket, walked out the door and hustled off to take the nearest train out of town. The museum didn’t even know the painting was missing until a still life artist (one could actually paint inside the Louvre at this time) asked a guard about the artwork. The theft was an immediate worldwide news piece after the museum announced it. The “Mona Lisa” became instantly recognizable and due to that fact, 60 detectives were assigned to search for it. It turns out that one of the maintenance crew who were hired to install security glass for the painting was part of the theft crew. [6] The intention of the thieves was to sell the painting to interested parties at the time, but due to the increased notoriety it became too visible to sell. Museums have become common ground to many art thieves, easy targets holding something of great value to collectors.

It is estimated that “the income generated by illicit trade in art has been as high as 6 billion dollars per year.” [7] This is almost double what it was a decade ago according to Robert Whitman a former federal agent. [8] The doubling of the figure shows that security measures are definitely not stopping art theft in its tracks, but that the low security measures are actually helping the illegal industry increase in profits. This low security is also accompanied by poor strategies for recovery, “the Art Loss Register states that even when recovery succeeds it takes an average of 13.4 years.” [9] The average number of works recovered after being stolen is around 25percent, [10] with many artworks being destroyed or damaged during recovery. “In Italy an average of 20,000-30,000 art thefts occur each year and in 2001, 142,258 pieces of stolen art were recovered. Worldwide, 50,000 art thefts occur each year with the United States being the primary consumer for all illegal art.” [11]

These are rather grim statistics but considering that the United States has only two full-time art detectives, one on the east coast and one on the west, only the biggest crimes will get even the beginnings of an investigation. [12] “Isn’t it laughable?” asks Donna Carlson, “New York City is the capital of the art world, and there’s one police officer assigned to art theft. And he also has to do stolen photographs, stamps, coins, gems, and china. It’s ridiculous.” [13] One can see why criminals would choose to target art: low security, low possibility of even an investigation, and high art prices are really driving theft up.

In 2009, Andy Warhol’s “200 One Dollar Bills was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $43.7 million dollars; this is “about a 100 times increase in price in only 23 years.” [14] In 2006, Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 sold for the highest value ever recorded at $156.8 million, which beats even the insured value of the Mona Lisa which is around $100 million. [15] This shows that fine art is quite a lucrative market and thieves simply have to walk into a museum and take their choice amongst famous masters. The value of stolen artwork isn’t what one would expect, as the typical piece of stolen art sells for less than 10% of its actual value. [16]

But who would buy an item like “Mona Lisa stolen from the Louvre–well known items can be to recognizable to sell. The movies often portray the concept of rich art collectors hiring high tech thieves to break in and steal artwork; this is displayed in “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The truth is “fancy works of art get stolen by criminal gangs”. [17] Although the days of the bumbling amateur walking in and taking a painting are not over-take for example in 2003 when a group of students took a Van Gogh from the Whitworth Gallery then left it in a restroom with a note stating how easy it was to steal-more and more criminal gangs are resorting to smash-and-grab techniques or simply armed robbery. This is not a result of increased security by the museums, as we can see by earlier examples that security can be lacking; it simply is an easier and faster method to get the items in question.

In the case of “The Scream” heist in 1994, a smash-and-grab method was not needed: the thieves left a postcard for security stating, “Thanks for the poor security.” [18] Then, in 2004, when The Scream was stolen again, security was tighter but experts stated that the museum lacked any type of effective surveillance system, and to top it off, the artworks were not even insured against theft. [19] This lack of security is very common; many museums in Europe and United Kingdom have older methods of security, such as simply bolting a painting to the wall, and have older surveillance systems that “don’t give a good picture of what happened” [20] and therefore do not help protect the artworks at all.

At the Isabella Gardner Museum, “The policy has always been that you don’t open the door in the middle of the night for God,” [21] yet museum guards still let the suspicious looking officers into the building and were then overpowered by them and tied up. Over the hour that followed, the thieves took 13 pieces of artwork including a Vermeer and a three Rembrandts. This high profile case once had at least 30 FBI agents assigned to it, but still not a person has been arrested or an artwork recovered. [22] Today the museum still continues to investigate the thefts on its own with the primary focus being on the return of the artwork, not the punishment of the perpetrators. In 2009, the Gardner Museum established a new building and new security measures in hopes to stop any other thefts from the museum. It took a court order to change some of the practices put in place by Isabella Gardner. On March 4, 2009, the court ruled that the museum could move items for the expansion and allowed ‘reasonable deviation’ from Gardner’s will, which unfortunately deterred advancement of some security measures. [23]

While many theories have arisen in the Gardner heist, no conclusive evidence has ever been found about whom committed the crime. If it was professional thieves, then why was a ransom never requested, and if it was gang related why have they never claimed responsibility. This leads one to the conclusion that it was amateur thieves, whom after the heist didn’t know what to do with the high profile artwork. In the case of the 2004-armed heist of “The Scream,” it appears to have been an organized gang. Charles Hill, an art crime expert states, “I think it was a distraction crime.” [24] This is because at the same time The Scream” was stolen, there was an armed robbery at the Norwegian Cash Service, and this provided the gang with what Sicilians call an “illustrious corpse” (a distraction). [25]

Although these large heists are not the typical target for many thieves, according to the Yale Forum, “Art thieves rarely target well-known works of art because art dealers can easily recognize them as stolen.” [26] Currently there are around 17,500 museums in the United States alone, [27] not including private collections, libraries, and artwork on display in public buildings. It is the small collection that is targeted because these have even less security and less recognition. Between 1995 and 2001, a waiter named Stephane Breitweiser purportedly stole over 175 objects from smalls museums and collections, the value of which reached 1.4 billion dollars. [28] According to the Mercyhurst College for Intelligence Studies, “individual fronts, churches and small museums in Europe will likely continue to experience a rise in art thefts until they address issues such as insufficient security personal and the desperate need for modern security systems.” [29] The Art Loss Register, an international database of stolen artwork, estimates that 61 percent of art thefts occurs in domestic dwellings, 12percent from galleries, 10 percent from churches, and 9 percent from museums. [30]


It is obvious that art collectors and museums have a hard line to walk, increased value in art equals increased attempts at theft, and with decreasing budgets art theft is harder to manage than ever. Paying guards typically costs more than installing electronic surveillance equipment, but without human backup, the surveillance systems are worthless. [31] On any given day at the Louvre, five galleries will be closed because there are not enough security guards. Since “The Scream” heist by armed robbers, European museums are giving more thought to deterrence and security. Soili Sinisalo director of the Finnish National Gallery said “the museum is retraining all its approximately 100 staffers in security and has placed cameras in each exhibit room.” [32] This is one example of many and fortunately museums now are becoming tighter lipped about security in order not to reveal potential loopholes.

In February of 2009, the Oslo Munch Museum in Norway reopened with a $6.2 million dollar security upgrade “that includes metal detectors, baggage scanners like those at airports, and several paintings behind bullet proof glass.” [33] Many members of the media describe the new museum as “Fortress Munch” [34] which is probably a good thing to deter would-be future thieves. What is unfortunate is that the museum had to go through two high profile thefts in order to get such security upgrades. The problem still remains though, many museums (large and small) do not have the funds nor the notoriety to get these kind of high priced upgrades, so they are still lacking in protection and basically are just sitting ducks for the art thieves. Is the solution to simply lock away the works of the old masters and keep them hidden? In order to really make any difference society has to make drastic changes on how it feels about public art and its protection. Museums need support from the public in order to advance security; they need a change in attitude toward the art thief and they need to redefine the importance of art crime in the eyes of law enforcement.

[1] “WebMuseum: Manet, Edouard: Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe.” Ibiblio – The Public’s Library and Digital Archive. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. .

[2] “Art, Stolen: Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.” ENotes – Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, and More. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. .

[3] “Edvard Munch Gallery > Anxiety Paintings > The Scream.” Edvard Munch – The Dance of Life Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[4] “Independent Lens . STOLEN . Famous Art Heists | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[5] “Famous art heists – Telegraph.” – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[6] “The Theft That Made The ‘Mona Lisa’ A Masterpiece : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[7] Bu Hua, R., Crittle, S., Ganguly, M., Ghosh, A., Horn, R., & Beech, H. (2003). Stealing Beauty. Time, 162(17), 58-66. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

[8] (News, Charlotte Burns | Web onlyPublished online 24 Aug 11. “Art thefts on the rise across North America | The Art Newspaper.” The Art Newspaper – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[9] Bu Hua, R., Crittle, S., Ganguly, M., Ghosh, A., Horn, R., & Beech, H. (2003). Stealing Beauty. Time, 162(17), 58-66. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
[10] Summers, N. (2010). TO STEAL OR NOT TO STEAL?. Newsweek, 155(12), 66.

[11] “ARCA :: Art Crime Facts.” ARCA :: Association for Research into Crimes against Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. .

[12] “stephen brookes – features – Off the Wall: The Global Art Crime Epidemic.” stephen brookes – home. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. .

[13] Ibid

[14] “Archived Blog: High end art prices skyrocketing.” American Thinker. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.

[15] “List of most expensive paintings – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. [16] Summers, N. (2010). TO STEAL OR NOT TO STEAL?. Newsweek, 155(12), 66.

[17] “The Art of Crime | Varsity Online.” Home | Varsity Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. .

[18] “World News Briefs;4 Norwegians Guilty In Theft of ‘The Scream’ – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[19] “Why Wasn’t ‘The Scream’ Insured? | ARTnews.” ARTnews | The most widely read art magazine in the world. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[20] Ibid.

[21] TV, Rochelle Steinhaus Court. “The Isabella Gardner Museum heist – CNN.” Featured Articles from CNN. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

[22] Lopez, S., & Faltermayer, C. (1997). The great art caper. Time, 150(21), 74.

[23] Goodnough, Abby. “The Gardner, a Wounded Museum, Feels a Jolt of Progress –” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 02 Nov. 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[24] Fouché, Gwladys. “Oslo Police Make Arrest in Scream Theft Inquiry | World News | The Guardian.” Latest News, Sport and Comment from the Guardian | The Guardian. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[25] Jones, Jonathan. “Was the Theft of Munch’s The Scream Really about Art? | Art and Design | The Guardian.” Latest News, Sport and Comment from the Guardian | The Guardian. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[26] “Wanted: Stolen Art.” Yale University. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[27] “Museum FAQ.” AAM: Welcome to the American Association of Museums. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[28] Potkonjak, Marija. “MUSEUM SECURITY MAILINGLIST REPORTS.” Info & Contact | Museum Security Network. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. .

[29] “Detail / Partners / Communities and Partners.- Art Theft and Organized Crime” ISN. Web. 03 Nov. 2011.
[30] ALAN, R. (2002, May 29). Arts Abroad | Thwarting Art Thieves On a Budget; Small European Museums Heighten Their Security. New York Times. p. 1.
[31] Ibid

[32] “ – Munch Art Theft Stirs Debate on Museum Security.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 03 Nov. 2011. .

[33] “Munch Museum Reopens To Heightened Security.” Security Info Watch. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. .

[34] “Munch Museum Reopens – The New York Times.” NY Times Advertisement. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. .

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