August 28, 2010

More on the Security Breakdown in Cairo

The stolen work, "Poppy Flowers"
 A week ago today the 1887 work Poppy Flowers, by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from a Cairo museum.  Hadeel Al-Shalchi has a very good piece reporting on the security (or lack of it) at the Mahmoud Khalil museum in a piece for the AP which you can read on MSNBC

I'm quoted at the end of the piece, noting that the best way to protect works of art is not necessarily with an elaborate electronic security system.  Those alarms and sensors certainly play an important role, but for a nation like Egypt, an active, engaged security guard who isn't dozing off as these guards perhaps were, would seemingly have been a successful deterrent for the thieves.  They apparently walked in and cut the work from the frame during hours the museum was open.  And I want to make clear that when I was quoted in the piece saying "It's not an exciting job, but you need to take it seriously", I mean that security staff at museums are professionals, and should be given that status.  In Cairo, these guards were certainly not expected or required to maintain an adequate standard, and the theft and damage of this artwork is the unfortunate result.  But hopefully Egypt will learn from this crime, and enact some sound security procedures to ensure more works of art are not stolen in the future. 

When Ms. Al-Shalchi called me to discuss the theft, she told me she had learned that many of the guards may have been praying—this is still Ramadan—while the theft was taking place, that they may have been dozing off, and that the museum was not heavily visited on the day of the theft.  But perhaps most troubling of all were the breakdowns in technology at the museum.  As the piece states, there were no working alarms, only seven of the 43 cameras were in operating condition, and video from the cameras is recorded only when a guard "senses" an incident may be taking place.  As Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Network says, this is not a good state of affairs for the protection of such valuable artworks: "The value of the van Gogh is $40 (million) to $50 million . . .  A complete security system of that museum would be $50,000, and to keep it running would cost $3,000 a year. ... Need I say more?"

Also of interest will be the arguments against repatriation of other classes of objects—such as the bust of Nefertiti—on the grounds that Egypt is not going to be able to adequately care for the object when it is returned.  yet Art theft occurs in every nation, and bad security is bad security whether the museum is in Egypt, Europe, or North America.  Thieves will exploit obvious gaps in security.  As Mark Durney, current moderator of the Museum Security Network, asked this week "Why are some national collections not as well protected as others? Who, in addition to the thief, is responsible for the theft?"  I think that is the right set of questions to ask, yet they need to be asked whenever a museum is unprepared for a theft, whether that museum is in Egypt, or France—where the security system at the Modern Museum may have not been in working order earlier this summer when five works were stolen
  1. Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Security problems abound in Egypt's museums, Associated Press, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38884911/ns/technology_and_science-science/ (last visited Aug 28, 2010).

August 25, 2010

Forgery Ring Discovered in Italy

The BBC and ANSA are reporting that a forged art ring has been discovered by authorities after an 18 month investigation.  The investigation was conducted by monitoring payment transfers and consulting art historians.  Works recovered include forgeries of works by Matisse and Magritte.  There are more than 500 counterfeit works, which may have cost buyers close to 9 million euros. 
  1. Italy seizes counterfeit artwork, BBC, August 25, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11088475 (last visited Aug 25, 2010).
(cross-posted at http://illicit-cultural-property.blogspot.com/)

    August 24, 2010

    ARCA featured in La Repubblica

    ARCA was featured in an article in Italy's leading national newspaper, La Repubblica, on 23 August 2010. The article mentioned some of the statistics on art crime in Italy kept by the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The Carabinieri TPC, as it is known, is the world's oldest and strongest art police unit, having been founded in 1969, and with a 300-plus strong force. They run the world's largest database on stolen art, containing over 3 million items, and have by far the best recovery rate of any of the world's police. In 2009 alone the Carabinieri TPC reported 13,219 artworks stolen in Italy (a significant decrease from the approximately 30,000 objects reported stolen as recently as 2001). In 2009 the TPC questioned 1220 people suspected of involvement in art crime, arrested 45, and recovered an astounding 19,043 stolen artworks.

    The Carabinieri TPC were honored with the 2009 ARCA Award for Lifetime Achievement in Defense of Art, and were featured in a BBC Radio Four documentary which ran earlier this summer. In that documentary the Carabinieri reiterated that art crime is linked to the drug and arms trades and even terrorism, and highlighted the fact that most art crime involves organized crime, and therefore is something to be taken very seriously indeed.

    August 23, 2010

    Theft of a Van Gogh in Cairo

    "The Poppy Flowers" by Vincent Van Gogh
    "[Y]ou've got two prime examples of people being indifferent to the need to protect their paintings".

    So says Charles Hill in an interview with BBC Radio 4 on the theft of this work from the Khalil Museum in Cairo on Saturday, which bears similarities to the theft in Paris earlier this summer.  The thieves cut the work from the frame.  Though some early reports indicated that the work had been recovered, that now appears to be inaccurate.  Two Italians have been detained at the airport, they were among the ten people who apparently visited the museum on Saturday.  It seems only 7 out of 43 security cameras were functioning. 

    The same work was stolen in 1978, and was apparently recovered in Kuwait soon after. 
    1. Galleries warned after art thefts, BBC, August 23, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11058596 (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
    2. Stolen Van Gogh painting still missing, the Guardian (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/aug/22/stolen-van-gogh-still-missing (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
    3. Alaa Shahine, Van Gogh $55 Million `Poppy Flowers' Theft in Cairo Blamed on Lax Security, Bloomberg, , http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-22/van-gogh-55-million-poppy-flowers-theft-in-cairo-blamed-on-lax-security.html (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
    (cross-posted at http://illicit-cultural-property.blogspot.com/2010/08/theft-of-van-gogh-in-cairo.html)