Thieves and Art: Why Protecting World Treasures Needs Higher Priority

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Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa, the 16th-century masterpiece painted by Leonardo, is protected by state of the art security. But many other icons of Western civilization treasures still aren't. Illustration by Kahnapule Michael Johnson via Flickr

Heist movies like “Ocean’s 8” and “The Italian Job” are fun to watch, but as we start the new year, audiences might be forgiven for wondering whether the most famous pieces of art and jewellery are vulnerable to highly skilled, real-life master thieves.

Most are safer than you might think.

The Mona Lisa, a masterpiece by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci which was crafted between 1503 and 1517, is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. Its insurance value, which has risen from $100 million in 1962 to over $821 million in 2018, reflects its significance as a symbol of Western civilization—as well as its potential worth to enterprising criminals.

The painting which hangs today in the Louvre in Paris, was actually stolen in 1911. The culprit was Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee at the museum. Although he was caught two years later when he tried to sell the painting to an art gallery in Florence, he is still regarded as the architect of one of the greatest art thefts of the 20th century—and, according to some, is partly responsible for the painting’s position as one of the most-viewed artworks in the world.

Vicenzo Peruggia

Vincenzo Peruggia staged one of history’s most notorious art thefts in 1911. Photo via Wikipedia.

Peruggia, it turned out, removed the piece from the wall where it was hanging during working hours, hid it in a broom closet, and waited until after hours to walk out of the museum with the painting positioned under a coat that he carried casually under his arm.

The painting was returned to Paris in 1914. Peruggia, sentenced to a year and 15 days in jail, served just seven months behind bars—a reflection of the fact that many of his compatriots noting his claim that he wanted to return the masterpiece to its Italian homeland considered the theft an act of patriotism.

Peruggia’s ‘walk-in’ theft would be impossible today. The painting sits behind bulletproof glass that is almost two centimetres thick, and is enclosed in a special sealed box to protect it from vibrations and humidity. A barrier separates the public from the piece.

But those are just the most visible aspects of a state-of-the-art security system that the Louvre has since put in place for all its art treasures.

Within the 70,000 square meters that make up the museum, you can find access control systems, intruder-detection equipment including video analytics, and a 24-hour surveillance of closed-circuit TV cameras. They all help to protect some of the finest pieces of art in the world.

The Mona Lisa is not the only example of the world-class treasures that are now protected by state-of-the-art security.

Anyone who has studied English history is aware that the United Kingdom is home to some of the most stunning pieces of craftsmanship owned by Britain’s royal family, such as the Sovereign’s Orb and the Imperial State Crown. With 23,578 delicate stones and over 140 objects, putting an exact price on the jewels has been difficult, but some estimates put it closer to three billion pounds (or US $3.8 billion at current exchange rates).

Even a single jewel pried loose from the objects would earn an enterprising thief millions if he or she could get away with it.

But there’s little chance of that happening.

The royal collection is locked away in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, and protected by bombproof glass. Although the Tower is open to the public, the collection is monitored by more than 100 hidden CCTV cameras.

And if that weren’t enough, a 22-strong Tower Guard, a detachment of the British Army, has the sole mission of protecting the Crown Jewels on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defense.

On the few special occasions when the Crown Jewels appear in public, such as coronations and openings of Parliament, armed police officers must be present.

But the fact remains that no one should underestimate the risk to the priceless objects stored in museums and other venues. Sometimes, the guardians of national treasures fail to take advantage of the security that modern technology can offer.

Sweden is a sad example. In August 2018, two crowns and a royal orb that belonged to King Charles IX of Sweden and his wife Christina of Holstein-Gottorp were stolen from Strängnäs Cathedral in eastern Sweden, in what looked like an amateur heist.

Theft by Bicyle

The 400-year-old jewels had been on public display. Two men walked into the cathedral around midday and smashed the glass where the contents were held. That caused alarms to go off around the building, but the duo still managed to escape undetected from the crime scene by bicycles and then by a motorboat along Lake Malaren, entering Stockholm’s archipelago.

Sweden’s police force were able to successfully track down one suspect because of blood left at the crime scene; some of the jewels were recovered. To track down the second culprit and the artifacts that had not been found, authorities carried out house searches, according to Swedish media outlets.

In November, the second thief was detained, but the stolen regalia is still reported to be missing.

Although the thieves were hoping for success, even if they had got away with the heist they would have had a tough time profiting from the jewels, which are worth roughly £43,000 (or nearly US $55,000).

It isn’t the first time that Sweden’s Crown Jewels have been stolen. In 2012, a 19-year-old refugee who claimed to be a friend of a member of the royal family, stole £73,700 (approximately US $94,000) worth of jewels. He sold them to a drug dealer for £730 (about $932) to buy marijuana.

As further proof of his lack of acumen in financial (and jewelry) matters, he reportedly threw another part of his haul, a tiara worth £30,350 (nearly US $39,000), off a bridge.

Sweden’s security failure was the result of failing to balance the national interest of keeping the Crown Jewels on display with the need for top-level protection. The thieves should have been detected as they walked in. Walk-through security door frames and regular visitor searches could have helped prevent this event.

art thieves

Peter Houlis

The price to pay for an in-depth security audit and the implementation of such systems is considerably less than the cost of orchestrating an international manhunt — and this is something that many art hosts fail to understand.

For many older establishments that lack technological integration, it’s time to wake up.

The risk of not doing so isn’t worth taking.

Peter Houlis is Managing Director of 2020 Vision, a security management firm based in the UK. He welcomes comments from readers.

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