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Paris art theft raises questions of museum security


Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2010-05-23

Five masterpieces were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris earlier this week. It was not the first such art theft from a French museum, and it has raised serious questions about security at museums across France.

It was a relatively quick, deceptively simple operation that should have set off alarms. But that apparently did not happen late Wednesday into early Thursday, when five masterpieces were stolen from a Paris museum. Now the issue of museum security is raising alarm bells across the industry.

In the world of art thefts, things couldn’t get worse. In June last year, a 3 million euro drawing book by Pablo Picasso was stolen in broad daylight from the Picasso Museum in Paris. Barely six months later, a painting by Impressionist Edgar Degas disappeared from a museum in the southern French city of Marseille.

The latest art heist came either late Wednesday or early Thursday, when thieves — or a thief — snatched five canvases from the Modern Art Museum in western Paris. The five stolen paintings — including a Picasso, a Matisse and a Modigliani — are estimated to be worth around 100 million euros.

FRANCE 24's FOCUS: To catch an art thief

The investigation into the latest theft is being led by a special branch of the French interior ministry known by the French acronym OCBC (Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels) that specialises in art trafficking.

Alarms that go off too late – or don’t go off at all

Museum officials have admitted that the institution’s alarm system was not fully functioning for several weeks.

According to investigators, the burglar — or burglars — sheared off a gate padlock and broke a window to get into the Modern Art Museum.

The theft, according to Daniel Herman, deputy mayor of Marseilles, who is responsible for city-administered museums, highlights the problem of art security across France.

"There are around 29 art works that are stolen every year from French museums," said Herman in an interview with FRANCE 24. "It's really appalling."

Security alarm systems are a major problem, according to Herman. “There are times when an alarm goes off too late, and sometimes it does not get triggered at all — take the example of Paris," he noted.

The solution, said Herman, was to introduce a fully electronic system "with chips to track every artwork". Another measure is the installation of better and more powerful cameras capable of covering all angles of a room, said Herman, who said he’s always surprised that smaller art works are not better protected.

“Sometimes, all it takes is very thick glass windows to deter thieves," he said.

Obviously, the solutions involve higher budgets, but that, according to Herman, is a price that must be paid. “We don’t have a choice — or else, we’re heading for serious trouble.”

"No zero risk"

In recent years, France has taken several measures to protect its heritage. In 2007, then French culture minister, Christine Albanel, announced a plan to regularly upgrade and modernize museum systems. The plan also called for museum staff to attend specialized courses. The decision followed the theft of a Monet painting, "The Bridge at Argenteuil", from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

In the 1990s, France’s museums directorate established two new "security missions". The first saw two police officers attached to the culture ministry and charged with the protection of cultural artefacts in transit. The second assigned two fire-fighters to focus on fire prevention.

French art experts says that in a country with 1,200 public museums, many of which are home to some of the world’s most renowned artworks, assigning just two police officials to oversee artworks in transit is not sufficient.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Guy Tubiana, one of the two police officers assigned to the culture ministry, said the security measures were adequate.

"Museums in France are the most secure,” said Tubiana. “We conduct regular audits at heritage sites. We are constantly improving our security systems. The proposal to introduce computer chips is currently being studied."

Tubiana declined to provide further details sighting security concerns. “We do not want to reveal our secrets to increasingly professional traffickers,” he said.

But Tubiana also admitted that “there is no zero risk” in the world of art security especially since “the work is immense and the thieves extremely clever.”

Night guards "saw nothing"

By all accounts, the latest theft at the Modern Art Museum was a thoroughly professional job.

According to Christophe Gerard, deputy mayor of Paris responsible for Culture, the museum had three night guards on site who “saw nothing”.

If the history of art thefts is anything to go by, there are limited chances of the stolen artworks appearing in public again.

Art experts believe the stolen works are unmarketable and could possibly be sold by criminal gangs to insurance companies in a sort of art-ransom swindle.

Date created : 2010-05-21


    Matisse, Picasso and other masterpieces stolen from Paris museum

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