Editorial: The New Breed of Thief is Less Glamorous

Dear Readers:

Picture the Ying and the Yang. Keep that vision in your mind as you consider a new trend in museum theft. It seems you dealers are installing such state of the art systems that the traditional museum thieves-the ones you see in the movies-are being thwarted, giving way to a new and more dangerous culprit, the armed robber. Security is so good, those in the art of stealing are being forced to find new ways to get the loot.

A Dutch security expert Ton Cremers predicted this trend earlier this year, according to Marc Spiegler in, "The Crimes They Are A-Changin," an article that appeared in Slate Magazine (August 26, 2004). Commenting on the future of museum theft during an interview with Spiegler, Cremers points out that with today's technology, if someone wanted the Mona Lisa, or those Vermeers in the Frick, they would never try to sneak in; they would just go there with their guns drawn and grab it.

Cremers also runs www.museum-security.org, a web site that features an up to date list of break-ins at museums, along with what works of art or artifacts were taken. According to Spiegler, the security expert only got the famous painting wrong: "On Sunday [Aug. 22 ,2004] , when a trio of men stole Edvard Munch's The Scream (and one of the painter?s almost equally prized Madonnas) from Oslo, Norway's Munch Museum, they did it in face masks, waving guns, with an escape car at the ready," says Spiegler.

An FBI spokeswoman described 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," Spiegler asserts. "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."

An increasing number of art thefts are taking place in the daytime during business hours. Security dealers are helping museums by installing better perimeter defenses including motion detectors, body-heat sensors and a host of other devices. So now you won't see a Sean Connery type look alike in cat suit sneaking though the ceiling.

Security firms are also using video surveillance and access control measures in museums to address theft from visitors. Better asset protection devices that secure a specific item, not just areas within the institution, like RFID tags for tracking objects they are affixed to, are also becoming common.

The Ying and the Yang occurs in that the security in place is encouraging the only means left and that is armed robbery. "It is the riskiest tactic, but also the surest way to actually leave the premises with works in hand," comments Spiegler. Now, when you contact museum clients for their scheduled check of their existing security system, or they are new customers, make them aware that protection against masked villains with guns is also becoming necessary.