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October 18, 2012

Kunsthal Rotterdam Art Heist: Conferring with Ton Cremers, Dutch security consultant

Ton Cremers
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

When Tuesday's news broke about the theft of seven paintings from the Triton Foundation at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, bloggers and journalists rushed to the telephones and internet to piece together the news.  Museum Security Network's Ton Cremers was quiet on the internet because he was at the crime scene.

The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Mr. Cremers, former director of security for the Rijksmuseum (the website includes a video by the Associated Press that interviews Mr. Cremers outside of the Kunsthal Rotterdam):
"The size of the theft -- seven paintings -- is remarkable, says Ton Cremers, a consultant on museum security (though not for Kunsthal Rotterdam) who spent all day at the crime scene.  Mr. Cremers, who founded Museum Security Network, a website on "cultural property protection," points out that the paintings were easily seen from outside through the windows -- maybe too easily.  "You want works of such value in the heart of your building, in a separate space," Cremers said.
What will this do to Kunsthal Rotterdam's reputation? "Oh, this is not good", said Cremers.  "This case will have a lot of international attention."  He expects the next time Kunsthal Rotterdam is organizing an exhibition, art owners will be "very critical" toward the museum before entrusting them with their expensive works." 
Mr. Cremers told the Christian Science Monitor that recovering the art is difficult.
"For paintings, that chance is around 30 to 40 percent.  On average it takes about seven years," he says.  But he notes that there is no guarantee of recovery, pointing to two works by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002.  Two thieves were sentenced for that crime in 2005, but the stolen paintings have need been recovered.
In Britain's Guardian, Mr. Cremers was quoted as saying 'that it had become easier than ever for thieves to steal paintings from even well-protected galleries like the Kunsthal.  He said some of the fault lay with its design.'
Calling the Kunsthal a wonderful museum, it was a nightmare FROM [Ton's emphasis here] a security point of view: "As a gallery it is a gem.  But it is an awful building to have to protect.  If you hold your face up to the window at the back you have a good view of the paintings, which makes it all too easy for thieves to plot taking them from the walls," he told DeVolkskrant.' (Kate Connolly, Guardian, 10/16/12, Rotterdam art thieves take valuable paintings in dawn heist
In this article on De Volksrant, Mr. Cremers says that the artworks should be placed far away from the outer shell of the building (loosely translated by Google) and that the Kunsthal Rotterdam robbery may be the biggest in the last 20 years in The Netherlands.

In this article by Anna van den Breemer in, Ton Cremers, from the grounds of the Kunsthal, says that once the thieves were through the door, they could easily walk throughout the entire museum with no barriers or walls around the more expensive pieces.

ARCA Blog: Mr. Cremers, could you comment on the size of the works or location within the gallery of the paintings stolen from the Triton Collection at the Kunsthal Rotterdam? Were these the most expensive paintings on display or just the easiest to locate and carry out? Had any of images of the stolen paintings been included in promotional material on the "Avante-Garde" exhibit which would have made the paintings more recognizable to thieves?
Ton Cremers: It looks as if the size of the paintings motivated the thieves to steal them, because larger, and more valuable paintings remained untouched. These really were not the paintings one would use for promotional material.
ARCA Blog: Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin -- stolen artwork by these artists often make the headlines.  Are paintings by these artists taken because the thieves just recognize the artists names from the headlines associated with expensive paintings or possibly are these works by such prestigious artists a good sale on the black market? Do you even believe that there are buyers in South America, Europe or the Middle East willing to purchase these works even knowing that they have been stolen?
Ton Cremers: Too often art thieves are considered well educated experts on art. This is by no means reality. Art theft as a specialty hardly exists. One does not need to be an expert to know names as the ones mentioned above. The most stolen artis is Picasso, most likely because of the fame of his name. The is no market for these paintings, and there are no secret buyers for stolen art. In general famous art is collected to raise one's status, and as an investment. Both of these are not possible with stolen art. Besides: when the thieves return to the buyer of stolen art, and rob him of the looted painting. What can he do? Report this to the police? Stolen art remains for a long time in the crime scene, is used as a collateral for negotiations with insurance companies, or - the worst scenario - is destroyed because the criminals do not know what to do with it.
ARCA Blog:  If you were to compare this theft to another, what would that be? The Irish gangs who stole paintings in Britain? The Serbs who were found with the two Turners stolen from The Tate Gallery?
Ton Cremers: As long as we do not know anything about the motives of the thieves or their origin it is impossible to make any comparisons. What I can say, is that this is the largest art heis in The Netherlands since some 25 years. One really must be very cautious with speculations about organized crime, or east European gangs. When the Benvenuto Celline saliera (salt cellar) was stolen Charles Hill - former Scotland Yard - stated in the press that police were close to solving this crime, and that Serbs were involved. Later on it appeared to be a drunk local who did not prepare the burglary, and theft at all, but just climbed scaffold, broke a window, smashed a display case, and grabbed the $30 million object. This burglary, and theft took less than one minute! No preparations, no organized crime, no Serbs...just a drunk local. This too, like the Kunsthal, was an example of very poor structural security.
ARCA Blog: Some headlines have suggested that inside information must have been given to the thieves about the gallery's security.  What kind of information would this be? Are we talking about something like the fictional account in the Swedish film "Headlong" where a man working for the security firm was an accomplice in art theft?
Ton Cremers: These are just speculations, that I really do not want to participate in.
ARCA Blog: You were at the Kunsthal Rotterdam the day the theft was discovered.  How did you find out about the theft and what role, if any, did you play in the investigation?  Are the Rotterdam Police in charge of the investigation? How many officers would be assigned and how many departments would be involved?
Ton Cremers: I found out about the crime via a journalist who called me (too) early in the morning. I was at the crime scene because several TV companies wanted to interview me at the scene. I am in no way involved in the investigations. Important to know: I was not, nor am I involved in the security of the Kunsthal. Let that be quite clear. If I would be, I would not talk to journalists, or answer your questions. At the moment 25 policemen are involved in the investigations.
ARCA Blog: In this case we've read that a forensic team has searched for physical evidence such as fingerprints and that police have reviewed security videotapes and asked for information from potential witnesses.  Can you tell us if any information regarding the evidence of this crime has been made public? Will police want to share this information or will the investigation be conducted quietly?  Often it seems that the only news we get from an art heist is that paintings have been taken or recovered and that someone may or may not have been arrested (with or without the paintings).  What do you think we can expect as far as news from the Kunsthal Rotterdam art heist?
Ton Cremers: The Police are very secretive in this matter. However, there some minor information was broadcasted, asking for witnesses. This far police have received some 30 tips. It is not clear if any of these tips are valuable.
ARCA Blog: What role will any international law enforcement agencies have in this investigation?
Ton Cremers: The usual role: hardly any, other than that this theft will be in the databases of Interpol, Dutch police, the carabinieri (they still have the largest database, and gave some twenty people almost full time dedicated to maintaining this database), and of course the Art Loss Register.
ARCA Blog: Were the paintings insured and did you see anyone representing the insurance company in Rotterdam after the theft? Will the insurance company be part of the investigation?
Ton Cremers: The paintings were insured, as loans always are. It goes without saying that the insurance company - I have seen a representative insurance broker - at some point will be involved. What fascinates me is that this broker accepted this risk to have it insured, for the conditions under which these paintings were, and the remainder of the show is, displayed really are below standard.
There is one more, unpopular, statement I need to make. The director of the Kunsthal stated during a press conference that the security of the Kunsthal is 'state of the art'. A very weird statement to make after this burglary, and theft of 7 paintings valued between € 50 and 100 million (some $130,000,000). Either she still is convinced the security of her kunsthal to be 'state of the art', or she is just trying to escape her responsibility. I am very much convinced that this statement - no matter her motives - disqualifies her as a museum director. It is my strong conviction that she should make room for a manager who is qualified to do this job.
Ton, thank you so much for taking the time to 'speak' with the ARCA Blog.