Protecting Fine Art Collections from Theft

May 06, 2020

Photo: The Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands, site of a recent art theft

By Erin Bast, Senior Underwriter, Huntington T. Block, a division of Aon

Art theft is rare – but has recently made the headlines with two large thefts, a Vincent van Gogh and a collection of 18th century jewelry. Thefts such as these bring up questions for museums, national institutions and galleries of how to secure collections. However, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing and most of the world’s museums and galleries closed, it is particularly important for fine art institutions to take steps to help ensure their pieces are safe.

Coronavirus and theft: unintended consequences 

At the end of March of this year, during the fast-growing coronavirus epidemic, a Vincent van Gogh painting, “as stolen from the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands. The painting was the single target of an overnight break-in that took less than a few minutes from start to finish. This museum had closed earlier that month in an effort to help prevent the spread of the growing coronavirus pandemic. 

Although this van Gogh piece – and other especially famous stolen art that makes headlines – is gone -  the fact that it is so recognizable will make it hard to sell or turn to cash quickly. 

The challenge of jewel thefts: Dresden’s Green Vault

In November 2019, another large and headline-making theft occurred when a group targeted the Green Vault museum in the Royal Palace Museum in Dresden, Germany. Despite security measures, thieves were able to access the museum. Eleven pieces from the 18th century collection belonging to the former Saxon ruler Augustus the Strong— ranging from a sword with a diamond-encrusted handle to shoe buckles – were taken. The priceless objects were encrusted with hundreds of diamonds, estimated to be valued at millions of dollars each. 

The stolen jewels have yet to be recovered. Why? When jewelry is stolen it is easier to change the original piece by removing the stones. The stones, which are very portable, can then either be melted down or sold as smaller gems.  

Security precautions and best practices

What security lessons can these recent high-profile thefts provide to museums, galleries and institutions now and going forward?

Closed museums and galleries will not necessarily face increased security risks as long as they are maintaining the same security measures as they would when their doors are open. It is particularly important for museums and galleries to be extra vigilant when it comes to factors that can damage art like shifts in temperature or humidity, pests, water leaks and open doors/windows.  

There are several steps that can be taken to help keep collections safe and reduce vulnerabilities. Make sure that alarm systems are turned on and in good working order. Ask security guards to make extra rounds and be extra vigilant. Also, let local law enforcement and first responders, like your area police and fire department, know that you’re closed so they can support you as needed.

If you have access to your location, make sure that premises are routinely checked, at a minimum of once a week— and remember to focus on temperature and humidity maintenance, pest control management, and, if artwork is stored below grade, make sure that a water detection device is installed and is connected to your central station alarm company. 

Insurance and recovering stolen art

While there are certainly challenges to recovering stolen art, insurance plays a critical role in making recovery a reality. The benefit of having insurance in the case of a loss is that insurance carriers work with an entire network of people to work on recovering the stolen items. This network includes loss adjusters and the Art Loss Register and Art Recovery International, all which work closely with the FBI’s art unit and Interpol to track the stolen art. 

It is important to note that while all claims are different the following are important in proceeding if any item is deemed stolen:

  • Report the incident to the police department immediately 
  • Report the incident to your insurance carrier
  • Have statements taken from key personnel at the institution 
  • Review the records of artwork, including acquisition records/invoices, inventory reports and photographs – and submit these to both the police and your insurance carrier

Moving forward: evolve, adapt and learn

The current state of our art institutions and galleries is unprecedented. Gallery and museum employees should feel confident in the security measures they’ve put in place ahead of time, but also continue to revisit those measures as the situation evolves. Crises like this provide learning opportunities and new chances to improve plans. If you aren’t sure what to do, reach out to others around you and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  


Erin Bast is a Senior Underwriter at Huntington T. Block Insurance Agency, Inc., a division of Aon, the world’s premier insurance broker. With more than 1,200 museums, 800 art galleries, and some of the largest universities and Fortune 500 companies’ art collections insured, HTB is the world’s leading provider of insurance to the fine art community.

This information is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to provide individualized business, insurance or legal advice. You should discuss your individual circumstances thoroughly with your legal and other advisors before taking any action with regard to the subject matter of this article. 

* * * *