Heist-proof museums? US museums aided by design and location

Last week’s $123 million heist of cubist and post-impressionist works at the Paris Museum of Modern Art continues a rash of painting pilferage in Europe over the past decade, with sensational headlines vaulting across the Atlantic. Van Goghs vanish in Amsterdam in 2002! “The Scream” swiped in Oslo in ’04! Picassos purloined in Paris in ’07 and ’09!

Art crime is at least a $6 billion global business. So, at the risk of tempting fate, one wonders: Why not here?

Why doesn’t thievery of this magnitude occur as often in the United States? Why has there never been a mega-heist in Washington, a city awash in priceless artifacts, the seat of the illustrious Smithsonian Institution and home to a dozen national art collections and a hundred museums and galleries?

The answer may be that U.S. museums are newer, fewer and less exposed, and the District’s museums, while not impenetrable, are more imposing than their European counterparts. The capital is crawling with armed guards and far from an international border, says Robert K. Wittman, a retired special agent who founded the FBI’s National Art Crime Team.

“Let’s say you hit the National Gallery — you gonna escape to Baltimore?” Wittman says. “If you rob a museum in Philadelphia, where you gonna go — Camden? Countries in Europe are so close, and you have open borders and unarmed guards. If you look at heists in Europe after the year 2000, many have been armed robberies.”

Thursday’s theft was a simple burglary that exploited a fluky alarm system, a window with a single padlock and a deficiency in security-guard coverage. European museums tend to be located on cramped streets in converted houses that have accessible windows, plenty of corners and hidden spaces.

While museums and private collections in the United States regularly endure smaller-scale vandalism and theft, the last mega-heist on American soil was 20 years ago. Two men dressed as cops were allowed inside Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum just after midnight on March 18, 1990. They bound two guards with duct tape and spent a luxurious 81 minutes inside. They made off with $500 million worth of art, including masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet, which have yet to be found. The perpetrators likely had ties to organized crime, according to Ulrich Boser, author of “The Gardner Heist,” who says most art thieves are common crooks — the class of criminal who would probably be flummoxed by Washington’s high-profile museums, which are fortresslike and ringed by bollards.

The steps around the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are considered visual deterrents, as are the cement planters and fountains. The National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery are underground. The Renwick, near Blair House, is in the zone of Secret Service sharpshooters. The National Museum of Women in the Arts just installed cameras in its galleries and on its roof, and the footage is piped directly to guards’ laptops.

The layers of police presence create an aura of immunity, said Judy A. Greenberg, director of the Kreeger Museum, which has experienced zero thefts in its 16 years.

“Everybody in Washington is so aware of security,” Greenberg says. “We have so many ambassadors as neighbors, with their own security, in addition to our own security.”

Sometimes that’s not good enough. The Art Loss Register, a recovery operation and private international database for stolen art, receives requests from Washington museums, galleries and private collectors every few months, according to its general counsel and executive director, Christopher A. Marinello.

“Washington does get their share of art heists — you just don’t hear about them,” Marinello says. “Just last year I dealt with an art gallery in Washington that had a Chagall that was stolen [worth about $45,000]. There was also a Picasso drawing taken [and then sold for $58,000]. We resolved it amicably and quietly and you didn’t hear about it. . . . I easily could say 75 percent of the cases that we handle — especially the higher-end ones — get settled discreetly because you have lawyers crawling out of woodwork and the first words out of their mouths are: ‘This has to be confidential.’ ”

Marinello could not elaborate on specific cases.

Cracks in Washington’s armor showed up in a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Smithsonian’s security force was understaffed, its directors were lacking information on key security measures, and the number of security officers had decreased as the institution’s square footage increased between 2003 and 2007. After the report, the Smithsonian hired about 40 guards and increased salaries to cultivate a more experienced security staff. By the end of this year, it plans to add 110 new security personnel.

Vandalism at the Smithsonian’s 18 open museums in the past decade has been minimal: Fossils have been snatched; water bottles were thrown at dinosaur exhibits; and visitors have spit on or kissed artworks.

“We feel very comfortable with our security,” says J.J. McLaughlin, director of the Office of Protection Services at the Smithsonian, who oversees a staff of 800. Because of federal funding and the size of its properties, the Smithsonian has a division that studies improvements, he says, “and looks at what has to be updated.”

The nature of exhibiting art creates a Catch-22 for museums, says Boser, “The Gardner Heist” author and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“We’re seeing all these thefts because art values continue to skyrocket even as the economy is distressed, and because art isn’t as secured as it could be,” he explains. “To display art is to make it easier for thieves to steal the items. But museums can’t look like banks, where money is secured in a vault in a basement.”

When Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was stolen in 2004, he says, Munch Museum directors put many works behind thick glass panels. The public complained that they couldn’t see the brushstrokes and started calling the Oslo museum “Fortress Munch.”

“The Scream” was recovered in a police operation in 2006. While some experts calculate that only 5 percent of stolen art is ever found, Robert Wittman said big-name, high-priced works — like the Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani stolen last week — are found 90 percent of the time, usually within a generation.

He believes the latest loot was taken by a loose-knit group of criminals based in the south of France who will attempt to either sell the paintings at the black-market rate of 5 or 10 percent of their worth, or trade them for drugs, or stash them away as bargaining chips should they be arrested on other charges.

“These paintings are worth nothing,” says Wittman, who asserts that anyone who could afford a black-market Picasso would simply buy one legitimately. “The reason a painting is worth anything is because of its provenance, the ability to transfer the title. When you don’t have that, they’re worthless. You can sell drugs and stolen cars and make money, but when it comes to masterpiece paintings — never.”