Blog Subscription via

August 29, 2023

Insider threats in museums, not as rare as you think.


Many articles discussing the recently announced thefts at the British Museum in London have emphasised the rarity of insider threats at museums.  Those in the know though, know that it happens more frequently that museums would like the public to recall.  Must instances don't get wide press circulation, as it is not in the collections' best interests to go into incidences publicly, so for the sake of not taking the lid off of too many discreet pots, we will stick to some of those already in the public realm. 

Here are nine of the more spectacular and publicly announced insider threat thefts which have occurred in museums and libraries involving internal staff in positions of trust.

In the early 90s, and over a period of 20 years, John Feller used his position as a respected porcelain scholar and researcher with access to the collections at Winterthur, Harvard Peabody, & other museum institutions to pilfer from their respective collections.  He plead guilty for stealing more than 100 valuable ceramic and glass objects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from at least eight known museums.  Some of whose records were so poor, that after his arrest and guilty plea, had the insider thief assist law enforcement and the museums with identifying which stolen objects came from their own institutions.

Also in the 1990s, Erik Anders Burius, a senior librarian, stole at least 56 rare 17th-century books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, while employed at the National Library of Sweden. Dubbed the "Royal Library Man", Burius sold at least 13 of the books to Ketterer Kunst, a German auction house.  He committed suicide shortly after his arrest.

Keith Davies, a former soldier in the New Zealand army for 30 years, worked at the New Zealand’s National Army Museum situated in Waiouru, in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island from 1995 to 2002, after completing his military duty. 

As the museum's registrar, Davies was tasked, amongst other duties, with the storage and inventorying the museum’s medal collection, and corresponding with the families of donors.  Davies seniority and knowledge of the Museum’s systems enabled him to cover his thefts while employed at the museum, and for another eight years after his departure. He altered records and replaced medals with other similar medals, so as to maintain the illusion that sets of medals had not been broken up.  In total this museum insider is believed to have stolen some 750 medals, selling  at least 131 to buyers around the world.  270 objects were still in his possession when he was arrested in Australia in 2011. 

Over the course of several decades, between 1997 through 2012, now deceased museum director Kent Ian Bertil Wiséhn, who worked for the Royal Coin Cabinet (The National Museum of Coin, Medal and Monetary History) in Sweden is believed to have stolen some 1,200 coins from his own museum and the Gothenburg City Museum's coin vault.   He was undone when his sticky fingering was caught on CCTV footage stealing rare stamps from the auction company Philea on Södermalm in Stockholm.

In 19 May 1998 Rome's prestigious Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna was robbed just after the 10 pm closing time. Armed with guns, three thieves entered the museum in gloves and balaclavas to hide their identities.  Storming the control room, the gang gagged two of the three female guards and reportedly forced the third to disable the museum's security system, who was also ordered to hand over its accompanying CCTV footage.  All three museum employees were then locked in a bathroom. Once in the painting's gallery, the thieves bypassed paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustav Klimt and stole three specific paintings:

L'Arlésienne, 1889 (one of five versions)
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 60x50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy

Le Jardinier, October 1889
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy


Cabanon de Jourdan, 1906
by Paul Cézanne
oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm
The last artwork completed by the artist before his death in Aix-en-Provence

From start to finish the art theft lasted only 15 minutes.  A complex heist, Stefania Viglongo, then head of the museums security control room, was ultimately implicated for being part of the team responsible for the thefts.  She received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment. Her husband, Alfonso Di Febio was sentenced to two years and 8 months. 

In 2003 while Alexander Polman was a curator at the Legermuseum Militaire, the Dutch Army Museum in Delft in the Netherlands, it was discovered that some books had been heavily vandalised and that other collection material were missing, including approximately 2000 prints and several paintings. Polman apparently stole most of this material by arriving earlier than the rest of his staff and secreting the materials in his car. 

On 24 May 2012 Marino Massimo de Caro was arrested for his astonishing role in the theft and embezzlement of thousands of rare volumes looted from one of Italy's oldest libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. While many of the books he pilfered have been recovered, a number of invaluable 15th and 16th Century books are still missing.

In March 2017 Denis Wilhelm was hired as a Bode Museum security guard in Berlin.  By February 2020 he had been convicted and sentenced of 40 months and  fined €100,000 for his associated role with cousins Ahmed and Wissam Remmo,  members of the Arabische Großfamilien who entered the museum island museum after closing hours.  On 27 March 2017 these two members of the Remmo clan accessed the museum's galleries through a window, and in 16 minutes broke through extremely heavy security glass case, and with the help of a strategically placed roller and wheelbarrow, carried away a giant solid gold coin, weighing 100 kilos from gallery room 243.  In finding Wilhelm an accomplice in the theft, prosecutors made a case that the newly hired security guard had fed the thieves inside information about the design of the alarm system and the timing of the guard's rounds, as well as having intentionally left the museum's window open.  Total theft loss = €3.75m (£3.3m) 

And let's not forget the still ongoing saga with Professor Dirk Obbink, who, since 2 March 2020 has been under investigation by the Thames Valley police for a complex series of thefts and sales of ancient Egyptian material belonging to The Egyptian Exploration Society.