Why expensive security alarms could actually be putting your valuables at risk
In September 30, 2016, after an elaborate police operation, two van Gogh paintings were recovered from the home of a Neapolitan Mafia boss . They had been stolen nearly 14 years earlier from the world-famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on December 7, 2002 . The thieves weren’t too subtle about their approach: they smashed a window, probably with a sledgehammer wrapped in cloth . The expensive alarm system didn’t go off . The guards heard the commotion, but the thieves were too quick for them . They knew exactly which two paintings they wanted, so they walked straight up to them, ripped them off the walls and exited through the broken window. This case is just one of many, and not exclusively in the world of art crime, where expensive security is foiled through the simplest of methods . Most of the time, thieves can render useless a multi-million-pound defence system simply by acting quickly. To boards of directors and insurance companies, expensive, state-of-the-art security2 sounds like it should be the most effective and safest option .
But such an approach raises two problems . First, there always seem to be smart people who enjoy a challenge . When I worked at a major art museum, the computer technician was driven mad by some non-malevolent hacker3 who kept breaking into the system . The hacker wouldn’t do much – turn off a light here, send an email there4 – just enough to show that the system had been breached, and would require a complete overhaul of security protocols. Second, most high-tech security5 – whether for computer systems, banks, homes or museums – is alarm-based . When a perimeter is breached, an alarm – silent or sounding – is meant to notify authorities . This sounds fine in principle, but for the fact that technical devices sometimes don’t work properly, and someone must respond in a timely and effective fashion for the alarm to have served any purpose. In 2008, two museum incidents highlighted the dangers mentioned above . First, at the blockbuster British Museum exhibit of the Chinese terracotta warriors, an activist slipped surgical masks, scrawled with political slogans, over the faces of some of the figures .
Each statue had been expensively protected by a software that drew an invisible barrier around each warrior – if this barrier were breached, an alarm would sound . At least, that was the idea . Not only did the alarm not go off, but tourists had to look for a guard to tell them what was happening . Second, that same year, a bunch of drunken vandals smashed open the employee entrance to the Mus e d’Orsay in Paris . The alarms went off, but the intruders were able to rush in, punch a hole through a Monet and sprint out before guards could reach them. Human response is of critical importance to high-tech security, both in terms of the natural human prankster impulse and the practical response of guards or police to an alarm sounding. To counteract this over-reliance on technology, some ingenious security specialists have come up with low-tech, analogue defensive measures to compliment the laser barriers and heat-sensor cameras . Dennis Ahern, director of security UK at Christie’s auction house and previously head of security for the Tate museums, taught a course on museum security at the ARCA postgraduate programme in art crime and cultural heritage protection . He likes to combine low- and high-tech devices in the same gallery .
The analogue methods, some as mundane as affixing a sculpture to its plinth with high-tensile steel fishing line, offer an element of surprise . Hostile surveillance – casing a joint, as criminals are wont to do when considering a location for a crime – might spot CCTV cameras and motion detectors, but the last thing a thief expects is a bit of fishing line.
Bolting statues to plinths, or frames to walls, is done less than you might think (there is some concern about speed of removal of objects in the event of a fire), but lashing a valuable that you don’t want going anywhere to an immobile surface is a tried-and-true safety mechanism, at least delaying potential thieves, if not stopping them altogether . Average police response time to a 999 call in cities is ten to 15 minutes, so delaying a thief is crucial . Add a surprise element to your alarm system, and that fishing line might buy police an extra minute or two to stop the bad guys . They also offer a failsafe if technology fails. Hanging side-by-side in London’s National Gallery are Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) and Margaret, the Artist’s Wife, a pair of pendant portraits by Jan van Eyck . There they rest, doubtless secured by various alarms and tracking devices (museums don’t like to go public with the details of their security measures) . For centuries, these works were displayed together at the painter’s guild hall in Bruges . But back in the 18th century, Portrait of a Man was stolen .
To make sure its neighbour didn’t go anywhere, a heavy iron chain was affixed to it . Now that the two portraits are reunited in the National Gallery, perhaps it would be fitting (and safer) to have them both chained to the wall ? In addition to all that high-tech security, of course.
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