Stealing Art in Europe

Cyrus Farivar asks:

Why is it so easy to steal art in Europe?

Smaller galleries and no guns. Europe has an especially high concentration of world-class art collections, many of which are housed in modest institutions. The art in Zurich was housed in a 19th-century villa, as opposed to a large-scale museum with a complicated entrance. Further, most security personnel in European museums aren’t armed, mostly due to a culture of openness and trust, but also for reasons of expense and liability—you wouldn’t want bullets flying around an enclosed space with lots of frightened tourists and precious objets d’art. While many galleries have alarms, guards, and other staff to prevent off-hour thefts, they don’t always take precautions to avoid the most obvious scenario: armed criminals walking right through the front door.

American art museums aren’t likely to have armed guards, either, but they do tend to have better security overall than their European counterparts. In the United States, your chances of finding a Van Gogh on display in a small gallery are slim; more likely, it would be in a museum on the scale of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. American museums also tend to be located in modern buildings, where it’s easier to set up high-tech sensors and alarms. The proprietors of centuries-old European houses are more reluctant to start drilling through walls and running cables in odd corners.

3 thoughts on “Stealing Art in Europe

  1. That sounds like cool us-american logic! One reason, why it’s easy to steal art in Europe is because nobody here has guns. Contrary to this it’s more difficult to steal art in the US because “art museums aren’t likely to have armed guards”. This has me totally convinced that guns play a major role in public and artistical security.

    “Von den USA lernen heißt Siegen lernen!”

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  2. I completely agree: the piece asserts that the lack of guns is a factor in the increased level of art theft in Europe, but offers no proof this is true. In fact, the article then undermines the point by admitting that most guards in American museums don’t carry guns, either.

    I think the point about the inability to retrofit older buildings is a good one, though. I still remember the light square on the wall of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where a painting used to hang before it was stolen. According to the terms of her bequest, the art in the museum (which was formerly her house) had to be kept exactly as she had hung it. That limited the museum’s ability to install advanced theft-prevention technology.

    I have often been pretty surprised at the seeming lack of security at a lot of European museums. And it’s not just that I’m missing ultra-clever secret security measures; people who work iside them have told me that basically aside from docents, wires, and the occasional video camera, there’s very little in the way of security at most museums. And we’re talking here about the big museums. Smaller ones — which, as the article points out, may well have one or two priceless masterpieces in their collections — often have no meaningful security at all. Aside from 78-year-old Herlinde, who watches over the 18th-century porcelain room every Sunday.

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