To Catch a Thief: Art Security & Recovery

Mar 06, 2018

Let’s leave art theft to Hollywood. Glamorous and alluring as The Thomas Crown Affair and similar films may be, true art crime leaves its victims feeling attacked, struggling with insurance companies, and grieving for prized possessions. It also happens more frequently than you may expect: tens of thousands of artworks, worth billions of dollars, go missing every year. In 2004, the FBI even set up their own Art Crime Team, comprised of 16 special agents. They maintain a National Stolen Art File, where you’ll find missing works by artists ranging from Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline to Andy Warhol. From Pre-Columbian stone bears to screen prints, art of all media, from all eras, is vulnerable to robbers seeking profit or their own aesthetic fulfillment.

Here’s the good news: as technology advances, so do the gadgets meant to safeguard your art. Additionally, private companies offer sophisticated investigative solutions when security fails. Below, three art security and art recovery professionals discuss how you can avoid a robbery in the first place... and what to do if your art still gets snatched.

Don’t Lose Your Marbles: Alarm Your Collection

According to Bill Anderson, of Art Guard, some galleries still place marbles behind paintings’ frames to ward against theft. If a visitor jostles the artwork, the marbles fall on the floor and make noise that serves as a very analogue alarm system. When he discovered this eleven years ago, Anderson set out to create a more secure mechanism. Enter the Safe Hook, his independent, battery-powered alarm sensor. Collectors (and gallerists) can hang paintings of up to 75 pounds on the hook that protrudes from the white sensor. If someone attempts to move the artwork, the alarm sounds at 120 decibels--a noise that’s impossible to miss.

The primary concern for collectors, says Anderson, is monitoring their collection during the daytime, when a security system is off. “You’ve got staff and workers and guests and visitors and partygoers and even family walking around the home,” he says. “Are they going to take a large Basquiat off the wall? Probably not. But smaller paintings, photographs, and collectible can be secreted away.” Art Guard answers this issue with their MAP (Magnetic Asset Protection) system. Their MAP sensors are appropriate for placement on a wide array of stationary assets: art, antiques, artifacts, tapestries, collectibles, and more. Similar to the Safe Hook, the MAP sensor will set off a customizable alarm (you can opt to receive a text or an email) if the attached object is touched.

When deciding how to secure your collection through alarms, size doesn’t necessarily matter. “One person with a $100,000 collection might have a huge alarm system if it means more to them,” says Robert Wittman, owner of an eponymous security and recovery consulting firm. On the other hand, if someone holds a $5 million collection as an investment, they may not necessarily care how carefully it’s secured--they’ll be happy with a decent insurance policy.

Wittman asserts that all collectors should have layered security: lighting, electronics, protocol, and human resources (guards) are all important components. Anderson recommends that collectors obtain proper insurance and a fair valuation of their art. Document an artwork’s provenance and as many other details as possible. In addition to criminals, moisture, heat, and light pose a threat to your art--ensure that environmental factors won’t be an issue in your chosen locations for art display.

Art Recovery

When art security fails, though, Wittman sticks with bereft collectors every step of the way. “We run a salad to dessert menu of investigation when it comes to a loss,” he explains. He and his team will execute a walkthrough, conduct a forensic analysis, and investigate the hard evidence. They’ll take fingerprints, assess facility damage, and liaise with law enforcement.

Bill Callahan, President of Unitel, helped investigate the largest single property theft in the world. In 1990, 13 works disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Rembrandts, a Manet, and a Vermeer were among the missing, which together are worth more than $500 million. In the spring of 2004, Callahan learned from an inmate client that the criminal Whitey Bulger (immortalized by Johnny Depp in Black Mass) would be carrying Edgar Degas’s looted Three Mounted Jockeys to the small Spanish village of Mijas. Callahan reached out to a colleague who ran The London Security Group, who put an ex-MI6 agent on the case (MI6, of course, is most famous as James Bond’s employer). Though the agent spotted a woman who resembled Bulger’s long-time girlfriend, and Callahan’s team identified crooked collectors who may have been interested in purchasing the work, Degas’s painting never surfaced.

If Callahan’s tale isn’t exactly a success story, it still highlights the prestigious, international, interconnected nature of his business, which extends to private collectors as well. “A client is a client,” he says. Individual collectors’ cases receive the same intensive reviews as major institutions’. Callahan and Wittman both mention that part of their job rests in monitoring big auctions: criminals follow the market. They’ll scope out an audience at Sotheby’s, looking for suspicious behavior. At times, thieves will hide in plain sight. Both men speak about their gumshoe roles with pride and enthusiasm. If films have glamorized detective work in the art world, these guys are the real deal. Their number one priority is returning clients’ art, whatever it takes.

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