Protected Premises: The Fine Art of Protecting Collectibles

Calls to secure valuable works of art usually come to a security contractor out of the blue. While there may be occasional need for a sophisticated video and sensor system to protect a local museum’s documents, artifacts, statues or paintings, more typically it is a wealthy client who wants a particular work of art or cache of heirloom jewelry secured.

Sometimes an insurance company demands better security for the valuables. Perhaps the owner became worried after reading a newspaper article on art theft. Whichever the case, protecting art is much different than the usual premises security assignment.

“Since more than half of all artwork is stolen from the homes of private owners, I would strongly recommend against using a simple home intrusion system in a residence where precious art is stored,” said Anthony M. Amore, head of Security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and trustee of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art.

While he acknowledged that many insurance companies will accept a basic security/intrusion system for galleries and homes, something more progressive is required for most medium to large museums.

Amore said that most thieves take advantage of security weaknesses. “Thieves understand this intuitively,” Amore said. “They are always on the lookout for the soft underbelly of any security system.”

Security dealers who are faced with installing a specialty system for a work of art need to give consideration to where in the network they link that system to the premises protection system. “For an institutional system, I think it should be fully integrated into a control room,” Amore said. “In a home setting, a dedicated system would be the best bet.”

Amore, in his book “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists,” (co-authored with Tom Mashberg), he argues against the popular notion that art theft is a crime committed by sophisticated, international gangs. More typically, the thief is a disorganized local ‘punk’ who read some article about the value of a Goya, Dali or Rembrandt and decided to make a quick heist.

“Art capers are utterly commonplace—so much so that it is clear even to minor-league criminals that they do not require a sophisticated crime ring or a wealthy backer to pull off,” Amore said.

A security dealer might be called by an insurance broker to install a system. However, while one would think that asking the client how much money a piece is worth, Amore said that it is not exactly the right question to ask.

“Rather, an art protection specialist should try to determine how important the piece is to the collector,” Amore said. There is an important nuance there. From that point, the specialist can work on prioritizing pieces for security in order to provide the best value.

“Of course, the collector might believe all of his pieces to be equally valuable,” Amore conceded. “Nevertheless, I’d discourage someone from thinking strictly in terms of dollars and cents, as art often has very important emotional meaning for collectors.”

In all instances, any security technology that comes in direct contact with a work of art (and for some environmental matters, anything that is situated close by) should never be installed without the assistance of an individual trained in art conservation issues, Amore said. His company, Boston Security Associates (www.BostonSecurityAssociates.com), has a number of expert conservators on call. These people are familiar with working on paintings as well as objects such as statues, vases, rare books and precious documents. They will help assure that a valuable piece is not damaged or rendered less valuable by efforts to protect it.

 

If the alarm goes off

Amore said there is so much to do when a work is stolen that it becomes difficult to enumerate everything. Again, he turns to experts.

“It’s important that police investigators have the assistance of an artwork loss prevention expert,” he said. There are many misconceptions that the public and everyday law enforcement have about who steals art, what becomes of it, and how it is returned, he said. A surprising number of heists end up more like kidnappings, complete with ransom demands. This happens when a crook discovers how hard it is to fence or sell his million-dollar payday.

“Further, the sorts of information about a work of art that must be collected and withheld from the public are very important,” Amore said. There are few experts in this field. In the U.S. his firm offers expertise based on research and experience in the field of art theft and recovery.

“In terms of databases, the FBI and Interpol should be notified,” Amore said. There is also a for-profit database maintained by the well-respected Art Loss Register (www.artloss.com) based in London.

“Art theft can never be stopped. It is too enticing, too easy and too potentially lucrative,” Amore said.

 

 

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and regular contributor to SD&I magazine. He can be reached at curt@curtharler.com.

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