Saturday, 2 June 2012

UK Museums seen as soft target

Chinese artefacts with a value of about £18m were stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in April

It is not just collections and sites in cash-strapped Greece and Italy or strife-torn countries like Egypt and Syria that are at risk of looting and theft. Geraldine Kendall ('Museums seen as soft target', Museums Journal  Issue 112/06, p15, 01.06.2012) reports that museums even in Great Britain are also at considerable risk these days:
There has been a significant increase in thefts from museums and galleries this year [...] As Museums Journal reported last month, thieves have so far this year made off with artefacts from the Yorkshire Museum, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The £750,000 Wenlok Jug was stolen from Stockwood Discovery Centre in May. These burglaries come in addition to the widely reported heists of Chinese objects from Durham University’s Oriental Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as well as an attempted raid on the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath. Museums across Europe have been advised to remove all rhino horns from display after a series of smash-and-grab raids, while the theft of metal has also been on the rise. Several valuable pieces of public art, including a £500,000 Hepworth sculpture, are believed to have been stolen by scrap metal thieves.
The Journal estimates the value of international art and antiquity theft as worth £3.8bn – twice what it was a decade ago. Increasing demand for such items in certain areas is fuelling black-market prices.

A key factor linking all these crimes [...] is the view among criminals that museums are soft targets with high rewards [...] organised gangs that would once have set their sights on banks or cash-in-transit vans have turned their attention to less-protected institutions. Museums and galleries have always been faced with the problem that rather than locking valuables away in impenetrable vaults, they have an obligation to provide public access, particularly to high-profile items. The theft of the Wenlok Jug from a high-tech security case shows that even the most advanced anti-theft measures can be relatively easy for thieves to overcome.
One third of the museums surveyed by the journal reported a discernible increase in crime and anti-social behaviour since the economic downturn. Metal thefts from London museums were 12 times higher in 2011 than in 2006, according to figures from the London Metropolitan Police. Unfortunately, several UK  museums are being restricted in the security measures they can take because of budget cuts.


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