Thursday, 26 April 2012

Museums under attack - the recent spate of thefts from British museums

As the media report the news of Britain sliding back into recession, heritage crime has also received some attention.  Metal thefts in particular, often directly damaging historic buildings, monuments and memorials, have hit the headlines and rightly caused outrage.  However, another crimewave seems to be affecting the nation's heritage, but with less media coverage overall - thefts and attempted thefts from museums and galleries.

Now, the metal theft issue is doubtless on a much larger scale, but despite national media coverage of a few high profile individual thefts, the quantity of recent incidents doesn't seem to have attracted much attention as a whole.

For those readers who haven't been following the issue, recent incidents have included:

  • The theft (and thankfully subsequent recovery) of two Chinese artefacts - a jade bowl and a porcelain sculpture valued at almost £2 million, from the Durham Oriental Museum (see their news page here).  This theft occurred when thieves smashed through an outside wall and then into a display case after the museum had closed.  The objects taken suggest that the theft may have been 'to order'.
  • In February, two 19th Century Buddhas were stolen from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in broad daylight by three men armed with baseball bats.  They smashed the glass of the display case and made off with the two objects.  As far as I am aware, they have not been recovered.
  • In the largest single theft of recent times, 18 Chinese objects worth around £18 million were taken from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge after a gang broke in once the museum had closed.  They escaped in a white van that had been stolen in London, again suggesting that this was an organised, well-planned and focused robbery.  The fact that they were inside for mere minutes also says that they knew exactly what they were after.
  • Other incidents haven't involved Asian art.  The Norwich Castle Museum has seen two separate theft attempts in recent months.  First there was the attempted daylight theft of a rhino horn (objects themselves subject to a spate of thefts recently) - only thwarted after the display case had been broken, but the thieves were stopped by brave and vigilant staff.  Sadly the second theft, occurring mere days later, saw decorative arts items relating to Lord Nelson and worth around £36,000 taken from a display case.
  • In January, a group of 30 Anglo Saxon silver pennies and a silver pin, worth around £12,000, were taken from a locked display case at St Albans Museum.
  • Finally, I heard this morning that there had been an attempted break-in at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.  Three men knocked on the door of the museum, then pushed past the staff and rushed into the museum.  Thankfully, they fled empty-handed once the alarm had been triggered.

There may be even more that I'm unaware of, but this list is shocking enough, I feel.  The fact that a number of the raids were in daylight is also rather startling.  Of course, these raids inevitably raise the issue of security.  The Ulster Museum theft caused the DUP MLA to openly question the security at the museum, but in all seriousness, what are museum and gallery staff expected to do when faced with potentially armed gangs?  No object is worth as much as a staff member.

Having said that, staff in museums and galleries of all sizes should exercise particular vigilance at the present time, but of course visitors can play a crucial role as well, by being aware of any potentially suspicious activity and alerting staff.  I'm not suggesting that visitors become suspicious snoops, but if we care about protecting the treasures that exist in our museums and galleries, then everyone has a role to play.

The fact that the highest profile thefts and attempted thefts have involved Chinese and Asian artefacts can be far from a coincidence.  Although no link between the crimes has been suggested by police, the enormous prices being paid by Asian collectors for artefacts now housed in the west has certainly created a situation where risks may be seen as worth taking by criminals - not to mention the very likely reality that a number of these items have been stolen specifically to fill a space in someone's personal display cabinet.