Art Crime in Current Times

Posted on: May 1, 2020 by

There is no doubt that the current times have caused extraordinary changes to daily life. There have been major impacts on every aspect of society, including how, when and where crime will occur. Thankfully, in general, crime has fallen since the introduction of lockdown measures in the UK. However, as noted in this article by Graham Farrell, Professor of Crime Science at the University of Leeds, and Nick Tilley, Principal Research Associate, Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL, movement, or lack of movement, changes the landscape of crime opportunities. Therefore, the coronavirus lockdown will alter the incidence of crime, including in the art world.

Van Gogh’s ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ (1884) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the daily operations of museums everywhere. A recent study reported that more than 90% of European museums have closed as a result of the pandemic. As covered in a previous blog post, one museum under lockdown has already experienced a theft. The Van Gogh painting, ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’, was taken from the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands in the early hours of the morning on the 30thMarch. The painting was on loan from the Groninger Museum, which as a result of the theft has now lost the only Van Gogh in its collection. Newly released footage shows the thief using a sledgehammer to break through reinforced glass doors and leaving with the painting tucked under his arm. According to Karola Richter, an expert in museum security at the German Museums Association and the Landesmuseum Württemberg’s head of security, the crime might not have occurred if someone had been sitting behind the glass security door of the museum. However, twenty-eight Van Gogh paintings have been stolen in the Netherlands since 1988. Perhaps this was just another theft, rather than one specifically targeted to take advantage of the lockdown conditions?

There has been some speculation over whether or not lockdown conditions actually increase the risk of theft from museums. On the one hand, a reduction in the number of museum security staff might increase the likelihood of a crime occurring. Additionally, emergency services are likely to be preoccupied with other tasks during this crisis. On the other hand, owing to the lack of movement, police are more likely to take notice of individuals out and about. Also, empty roads could make emergency services’ response times quicker.

Vernon Rapley, the head of security at the V&A Museum, told The Art Newspaper Podcast that the risk profile faced by the museum has changed under lockdown. On a normal day, the museum is full of visitors and staff who act as extra pairs of eyes. This is no longer the case. At the same time, these visitors also present a risk of their own, although this is rare, and this risk factor has been removed. In the present crisis, day time at the museum is like a night shift, in which the focus is on watching the perimeter. According to Rapley, the V&A had emergency planning in place and had recently invested in security. Unfortunately, smaller museums with fewer resources may be less prepared to handle the current crisis.

Of course, it is not just museums that are vulnerable to theft. The very day that Boris Johnson announced the lockdown measures in the UK, a collection of deactivated guns used as props in James Bond films were stolen from a house in North London. Whilst there was no link between the lockdown and this specific theft (since the theft is reported to have occurred prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement), we should remember that art and items of cultural heritage are found not only in museums but in many private dwellings and these collections might be equally vulnerable in the present crisis.

Statue of Unity, India (Image credit: Pradeep717 CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, a rise in cyber-crime has been noted in the art world. Indeed, earlier this year, the sale of a John Constable painting by a London dealer to a Dutch museum was infiltrated by hackers, resulting in the loss of $3.1 million and court action between the parties. More recently, in April 2020, an online auction of rare whisky held by a company based in Perth, Scotland, has been delayed after the sale was targeted by hackers. One of the more bizarre stories of art-related crime taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic involved an online cyber-scammer. In India, a man attempted to sell the ‘Statue of Unity’, the largest sculpture in the world, for the proposed sum of $4 billion, claiming that the money would be used to support hospitals and provide healthcare equipment. The culprit in this case has been located and the Indian police have filed a “cheating and forgery case” against him. With a large number of art sales raising money for coronavirus-related causes taking place online, there is increased risk of scams of this sort occurring.

Whether or not the present crisis will increase the occurrence of crime in the art world remains to be seen. It is encouraging that there have only been reports of one museum break-in under lockdown conditions so far and that the statue-selling scammer has been caught. On a positive note, it looks as though museum closures will soon be coming to an end. Belgium and Italy are planning to reopen their museums in May, albeit under strict social-distancing requirements, and Germany has already reopened some museums, again with safeguards in place. A swift return to pre-pandemic life is not expected, but this may bring positives as well as negatives. The crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibitions of recent years are unlikely to be seen for some time, but the inspired and creative online activities of many institutions will probably continue to flourish. With the security issues engendered by lockdown life behind them, museums may once again look forward to returning to some kind of normality, albeit a new and rather different one.