Record art heist forced changes in security, enforcement

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Record art heist forced changes in security, enforcement

With the 28th anniversary of the largest art heist in world history just a few days away, it might be a good time to consider whether anything can really be done to put a halt to the theft of rare paintings and other valued pieces of art.

Certainly, visitors at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will pause and reflect on the loss. The empty frames that once held masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and sketches by Degas are sad reminders of what was taken in the brutal and still-unsolved robbery of March 18, 1990.

An hour after midnight, two men disguised as Boston police officers tricked their way into the museum, tied up the two-night watchmen and, inside 81 minutes, made off with 13 pieces of art now valued at a half-billion dollars. Twenty-eight years later, despite the best efforts of the FBI and a $10 million reward, the crime remains unsolved, no one ever arrested and nothing ever returned.

The FBI ranks art theft as one of the costliest crimes it fights internationally with estimates between $4 billion and $6 billion worth of art stolen every year. While much of that stems from the looting of antiquities and archaeological treasures from strife-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, the pieces often find themselves on the American black market, targeted by the FBI.

But, as Charleston came to learn five years ago, while heists on such a grand scale may grab the headlines they happen rarely. Rather it is the smaller ones take place far more often — and they too have a sizeable effect. In March 2012, a painting of a marsh scene by local artist Linda Falbo Williams, which had just a won a ribbon at an exhibition at the Charleston Visitor Center, was snatched from its placement.

Eighteen months later, in August 2013, three paintings by local artist Alizey Khan were snatched from an exhibit at the Charleston County Library.

Although Ms. Khan’s several pieces were recovered, the sense of vulnerability that such heists cause can have a lasting effect on the local art community as well as the artist.

As Williams said: “You feel violated like someone walked into your house and stole something. It was very disappointing.”

Doug Henderson, who was then executive director of the county library, echoed that sense of loss following the theft of Khan’s three pieces. “What we lost isn’t so much the monetary value, but we don’t want to lose the trust of the art community. We want to be able to share artists with the public without fear that someone’s going to come in and try to ruin it for all of us.”

By the very nature of making art available for public appreciation, such exhibits will make it vulnerable to theft, whether shown in museums, galleries, libraries and other public places. That vulnerability remains even though the publicity given to the Gardner Museum theft has resulted in immense improvements to security systems that protect such art.

They include installing in-house cameras that capture the presence and movements of everyone inside galleries, keeping exhibits distant from easy access to the outdoors and maintaining a staff of professional guards and security personnel.

As for law enforcement, many major cities now assign at least one detective to investigate art theft and the FBI established a separate unit composed of eight agents to attack the problem.

On the private side, many smaller museums that, like the Gardner, had failed to maintain the costly insurance policies to cover the replacement of stolen pieces, rushed to make up for their failings. With the coverage, insurance companies assigned loss prevention specialists to inspect the premises and they recommended such wholesale changes that those in the field said that museum security became a cottage industry.

The insurance industry has sought to cut down on the fencing of stolen art by establishing a database which lists information on all pieces stolen in recent decades. But there is still a market for purloined items, especially the smaller items like the ribbon-winning painting, Golden Tranquility, done by Linda Falbo Williams and stolen from the Charleston exhibit in 2012. It remains missing.

Auction houses could do a better job in making sure that the ownership of a piece of art is proven through documents such as bills of sales before placing it up for sale. While the ownership of any piece valued at more than $1 million is scrupulously checked, the standards are less so for those valued at less than $100,000.

In 2009, I discovered an 18th-century British portrait, which had been stolen by a New York truck driver hired to transport a garage-full of paintings and photographs from upstate New York to Manhattan, had been auctioned off by Sotheby’s for $47,000. The owner, who later pleaded guilty to federal charges on the theft, had been able to convince Sotheby’s to go through with the auction without any documentary proof that he owned the painting, just claiming it had been in his family “for years.”

Stephen Kurkjian is a retired reporter and editor for The Boston Globe. He will speak on his book, “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters who pulled off the World’s Greatest Art Heist,” on March 8 at the Charleston Library Society.

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