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Information for Museums and Libraries

SURVIVING A COLLECTION LOSS
Working with Law Enforcement
(re-printed www.museum-security.org)

by Don Hrycyk
Presentation at the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection
March 1999

Good morning. I would like to discuss some actions you might take, both before and after a theft occurs, that can either prevent the theft or assist in recovering your property if you are victimized. Hopefully, locating the property will result in the arrest of the thieves who committed the crime.

First of all, don’t wait for a crime to occur before developing a liaison with your local law enforcement agency. By meeting regularly with a contact person before the crime occurs, you will know what to expect if a crime takes place and you will be better prepared to assist in the investigation. It is worthwhile just having the name and phone number of someone you feel comfortable with to exchange information on security issues.

In addition, many police departments have subject matter experts who can provide training on a wide range of topics such as:
• Theft prevention
• Law & liability
• Dealing with the mentally ill
• Threat assessment & stalkers
• Bomb scares
• Hazardous materials
• Pickpockets
• Ticket scalpers
• Parking and crowd control

These personnel are already paid for with public monies so you may as well make use of their services to enhance your organization’s policies and procedures.

In Los Angeles, we attend Museum Roundtable meetings about once every other month. Security personnel from museums in the region attend along with local law enforcement and the FBI, which makes sense because the police department and the FBI have joint jurisdiction on thefts of cultural property from museums and special collection libraries.

Of course, if a theft occurs, prompt reporting of the crime is essential. Bob Spiel has already discussed aspects of reporting in detail. However, let me offer you as an anecdote a local case that is currently going through the courts. It illustrates the response of two different museums to a theft occurring on the premises. The first museum has an art rental gallery where the public can lease art by local artists. Two fraud suspects came into the gallery and used a fake driver’s license, a fraudulent credit card and fictitious information on a rental agreement to gain control over several pieces of art. They promptly disappeared. The museum made a crime report. With luck, we were able to identify the suspects and served a search warrant on their home where we recovered all of the stolen art three years after the theft. While we were in the house, we noted many other pieces of art decorating the walls. None of the pieces had been reported stolen. However, we knew the suspects had a lifestyle based on fraud. So, we decided to photograph the art and put these photos, along with images of the suspects, in a police bulletin that we distributed to museums, art galleries and art dealers.

One of these bulletins went to another museum that also has an art rental gallery. The manager of the gallery read the circumstances of the crime and realized that her museum had been victimized in exactly the same manner during the same time period. The manager looked at the photos of the suspects and recognized both of them as the same suspects who had committed the theft. The manager also recognized several pieces of art in the bulletin that the suspects had stolen from the museum. So, having made these observations, what did the manager do? The manager did nothing! No effort was made to contact the police or recover the art or to make a crime report. We eventually found out about the theft months later in a roundabout way when an artist stumbled upon the police bulletin and recognized one his artworks that had been stolen from the museum. He notified the Art Theft Detail. The manager shrugged it off by stating she had been too busy to respond to the bulletin. The fact that the artists had been compensated by insurance also seemed to play a part.

Of course, protect the crime scene so that it can be processed for evidence. The first museum burglary I investigated was completely cleaned up by the time I got there. The debris had been swept up and the shattered pieces of a display case had been handled and tossed into a box. Why? The museum doors were due to open to the public and they did not want people to see what had happened.

The tools for identifying a suspect from trace evidence and fingerprints are getting better. I have had entire cases solved through the recovery of a single partial fingerprint. In cases where there are no witnesses, this may be our only chance of identifying the thief and recovering the property. Once the crime scene is contaminated, it can never be restored to its original condition.

Museums and libraries can usually provide good descriptions and photographs of stolen property. However, one area that is usually overlooked is taking the time to note the parts of an artwork not normally viewed by the public, such as the back of a canvas or the bottom of a bronze. Archiving details of these areas can be as helpful in identifying an artwork as the front – sometimes more so.

I received a phone call one day from an informant who lived in Ohio and claimed she had seen a Monet painting that she believed had been stolen from somewhere in the Los Angeles area many years ago. She had seen it briefly, hidden behind a dresser in an apartment. I asked her what the painting depicted but she could only remember that it was some kind of a landscape. However, she had viewed the back of the painting and recalled it had a label from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This helped us to make inquiries to try to establish the credibility of an informant we had never dealt with before. When the Monet was recovered, it had the exhibition label she described. Along with the Monet was a Picasso oil that was also recovered. The back of the Picasso contained a rich assortment of old shipping labels, exhibition labels and framers marks that contributed to the provenance of the piece and made the back of the painting as distinctive and identifiable as the front.

Getting details of these overlooked areas can aid law enforcement in recovering the piece and gauging the credibility of someone claiming to have access to the stolen artwork. If art has been exhibited and catalogued, anyone can provide a photograph of the front. There will only be a handful of people who will know what is on the back.

A painting by Arthur Wesley Dow was stolen from a university by an employee who sent it to a gallery in New York where it sold for over $300,000. During the investigation, the issue of ownership arose because the university had difficulty locating inventory records on the painting. A witness who examined the artwork shortly before it was stolen noted it had a red stamp on the back with writing indicating the painting belonged to the university. Unfortunately, the university itself had no record of what was on the back of the artwork. Therefore, they lost an opportunity to corroborate the witness’ observation.

As a cultural institution, you may be unconcerned about the monetary value of your collection because it is not your intent to deaccession individual pieces for sale. Be aware that the value of stolen property becomes very important in any criminal prosecution. If there has been an arrest, you will be under time constraints to discover the value of the items stolen. Value will determine what charges will be filed against the defendant. There are often enhancements that will extend jail sentences based on the value of the property stolen. Value will determine what bail the defendant will have to pay in order to get out of jail and how much restitution the defendant will be ordered to pay. These values cannot be seat-of-the-pants estimations. Someone will have to take the stand and explain to the court how these values were derived.

I handled an investigation where a plexiglass case was smashed at a museum and ancient jewelry was stolen. On the crime report, the only value we could obtain for the artifacts was the dollar value placed on the items when they were first obtained by the museum more than 30 years earlier. That value did not even qualify the crime as a felony in the state of California. The dollar amount was comparable to what one would pay for costume jewelry at a department store rather than the value of historical artifacts thousands of years old. And, unfortunately, the museum had no photos of the stolen pieces.

Whenever possible, as part of a periodic inventory process, I would recommend the development of an in-house capability for determining the value of pieces in the collection. Not only in case a theft occurs or for insurance purposes, but also to help evaluate the security needs of objects that may have significantly increased in value over the years. You may look at a collection item as a cultural treasure to be shared with as many people as possible. However, there is value to viewing that same item through the eyes of a thief who may realize that an item small enough to be tucked under a coat can be traded for a luxury car or a down payment on a house. Periodic evaluations may reveal what collection items have become prime theft targets that may require modifications in access and security arrangements.

And finally, constantly evaluate your employees’ compliance with written policy and procedures. Many of the business and institutional thefts that I investigate reveal the dichotomy between what people are supposed to be doing and what they are actually doing. Rules that have been carefully developed to protect assets are often winked at for the sake of expediency – sometimes with the acquiescence of management.

A major auction house in L.A. reported that some clever criminal had gained access to a large sturdy safe controlled by a combination lock. The highest value property was stored in this safe. The director of the auction house informed me there were only five people who knew the combination to the safe. They were all trusted top executives who were beyond reproach. Any employee who needed to access the safe could only do so through one of these five people. However, after talking to other employees at the business, I learned that these five executives could never remember the combination to the safe and did not want to carry the combination with them. So, they decided to write the combination on a piece of paper that was placed in the drawer of an unlocked desk in the vicinity of the safe. On several occasions, a new part-time employee witnessed the ritual of one of these executives removing the paper and reading the combination as they opened the safe and then returning the paper to the unlocked desk. The worker decided to do the same and increased his first month’s wages by about $100,000.

I would like to make one final point. I often hear people say that stolen art tends to fall into a black hole out there, never to return. That has not been my experience. I believe that art is one of the best types of property to ultimately recover. Police departments typically have two main categories of stolen property reported to them – both of which become more difficult to recover as time goes by. One category involves property that eventually becomes obsolete. Who is still looking for a computer or a television or clothing stolen ten years ago? These items deteriorate in value to the point where they become worthless. The other category is property that may be distinctive and high value, but can be disguised. So, even if you encounter the item, you may not recognize it. For example, a distinctive diamond bracelet can be melted down for its gold and the stones removed to fashion an entirely new piece of jewelry. A luxury car can have parts replaced and the vehicle identification number altered. With a new paint job, fraudulent paperwork and new plates, you now have a car that is worth as much or more than the original. But in ten years, a stolen artwork will still look pretty much as it did when it was stolen and will probably appreciate in value. It may have a new frame and need cleaning, but a David Hockney will still be a David Hockney. A thief isn’t going to try to alter the artist’s name and replace it with an alias. Art has intrinsic value for what it is. Therefore, art and other distinctive cultural property are recoverable if we put in place the tools to locate and identify these items when they eventually surface.