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Security Lessons: What can we learn from the Rotterdam Heist?

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 edition of Museum magazine.

In the early morning hours of October 16, 2012, two unidentified thieves broke into the Rotterdam Kunsthal Museum through a back emergency exit door. They stole seven artworks from the Netherlands museum (including works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse) valued at more than $100 million. Setting off a security alarm, the perpetrators quickly executed the theft, stripping the paintings from the museum walls and packing them into backpacks. They escaped through the same door they used for entry and were gone before police could respond; indicating that, like many experienced criminals, they had spent months targeting their objectives and knew the response time of the authorities.

Despite the lack of a black market. the Kunsthal Museum incident demonstrates that thieves continue to attempt daring heists against vulnerable targets. The onus falls on the museum (whether it’s a large national institution or a small regional historical society) to provide adequate security to protect the collections.

One buzz phrase for collection security today is due diligence. In this context, this is the requirement for proper security for collections in the care and custody of professional museum managers. In some cases, the lack of due diligence by museum managers may expose them to adverse legal ramifications. Satisfying the requirement of due diligence, as it relates to proper security, is often the responsibility of the collection manager and museum director, especially in smaller institutions that do not employ a security director.

Effective security has three primary objectives. First, it discourages thefts by providing a visible deterrent. Second, good security detects intruders and alerts the relevant staff and authorities of a security breach. Finally, in a worst-case scenario, effective security gathers forensic evidence following an incident, which may aid in the recovery process. Unfortunately, in the case of the Rotterdam Kunsthal Museum, despite the activated intruder alarms, police were unable to respond in time to avert the heist or apprehend the criminals and recover the purloined artworks. Although the museum had active working security cameras that captured the theft unfolding, the quality of the video and location of the cameras were poor, offering little aid in a positive identification of the thieves.

The three basic security components that make up an effective security system are electronic surveillance, human resources, and proper procedures. From radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning system (GPS) chips to remotely controlled high-definition cameras, electronic surveillance systems are continually evolving and growing more sophisticated. Good security is not just for large art museums; any size institution that houses objects of cultural property can tailor a security system to its needs.

Even some of the most advanced electronic systems can be defeated, however, by a highly motivated thief. In 2002, thieves stole a dozen paintings valued at over $1 million from the National Fine Arts Museum of Paraguay. When police were called to the scene the morning after the heist, they discovered a hole in the museum floor; the entry to an 80-foot-long, 10-foot-deep tunnel leading to a retail shop less than 25 yards from the museum. The thieves used fake names to rent the space and, it is presumed, spent two months digging the tunnel.

Without proper oversight and human resources, a system can be easily breached. In 1998, the FBI recovered more than 200 artifacts that had been taken in an insider theft from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania during the prior decade. This was the largest recovery of stolen U.S. historical items in history. While security systems were in place, the museum janitor had been pilfering and selling the museum artifacts to an electrician (a self-proclaimed history buff) who had done work at the institution. The janitor estimated he had been paid approximately $8,000 for stolen cultural property whose true value amounted to more than $2.5 million.

In the event, a breach occurs and staff is able to respond, a lack of proper procedures following a loss could make the response ineffective. Proper procedures include protection of the crime scene, calling the police immediately, and preparing written descriptions and images of the missing objects. If electronic surveillance, human resources or proper procedures fail, the security system is compromised. The Rotterdam Kunsthal Museum demonstrated a clear lack of human resources. Had security personnel been on site, an effective response could have been organized in a much more timely manner.

The best way to mitigate potential problems that may lead to theft is to proactively ensure that security procedures are in place, maintained and utilized correctly. Even systems only a few years old can become obsolete or require maintenance that exceeds the ability of curators or staff maintenance personnel. A site security inspection by an outside security consulting firm can ensure that the institution is prepared to respond to any attempts to breach security, and can be key to documenting due diligence by the institution management. Because stolen artworks or artifacts are unique, they are usually recovered. But the unfortunate reality is that museums and institutions both large and small will remain targets of opportunity for· criminals as long as they house valuable collections.

Robert K. Wittman is vice chairman of the Museum Association Security Committee and former senior investigator and
founder of the FBI National Art Crime Team. He has recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural
property and is the author of
Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. He can be reached through his website at

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