We don't know how much art has gone missing from museums
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We don't know how much art has gone missing from museums
Object's from the Louvre's collection stored at a warehouse in Lens, France, Feb. 9, 2021. Museums are doing a better job of accounting for missing inventory than years ago, when they would sometimes not report thefts out of embarrassment and fear of exposing security weaknesses. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times.

by Jenny Gross

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Should museums tell the public about missing art?

Two pieces of gold and silver-encrusted Italian Renaissance armor, which had been stolen from the Louvre in 1983 and found this year in a family’s private collection in France, were discovered the way that stolen art often is: An expert cross-checked the items against an online database of lost and stolen art.

But museums have at times withheld information about thefts, fearing that revealing security weaknesses could make other institutions less likely to loan them art or that it could encourage other thefts, according to current and former museum officials. Art security experts say the failure to report thefts, particularly involving items stolen from storage, has prevented museums from recovering items.

Philippe Malgouyres, the curator of heritage art at the Louvre, said that when he started working in museums decades ago, he heard stories of thefts and disappearances that had not been reported.

“Our purpose is to preserve objects for the future and for the public,” Malgouyres said. “When we fail to do that somehow, when something is stolen, it’s a very painful experience, which led some museums in the past, especially, not even to go to the police sometimes, because they were feeling so embarrassed about it.”

He said that while the armor that was recently recovered was not as well known as many other pieces in the Louvre’s collection, he had thought it would eventually be found because it had been cataloged in a database of art thefts in France.

Now, public museums and galleries act in a more transparent way, said Sandy Nairne, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery in London and the former director of programs at the Tate Gallery.

“In the past, there was a kind of instant reaction of institutions that wanted to protect their sense of integrity that made them very cautious about talking about it,” said Nairne, who led a team at the Tate that recovered two J.M.W. Turner paintings in 2002, eight years after they had been stolen while on loan to a museum in Germany.

On Sunday, the newspaper El País reported that the National Library of Spain had discovered in 2014 that one of its holdings, a 17th-century book by Galileo, had been replaced by a copy but did not report it to police until four years later, when researchers had requested the work.

Although it is obvious when artwork that is on display is stolen, museums can sometimes take years to realize that pieces in storage have been taken, said Tim Carpenter, a special agent with the FBI’s art crime team.

“It might be 10 or 15 years before they do an inventory and say, ‘Hey, where is this piece?’” he said. “You can imagine how difficult it is trying to play catch-up on a 15-year-old crime. It makes things infinitely more difficult for us.”

A comprehensive inventory of a museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has hundreds of thousands of objects, is time-consuming and expensive, but poor record-keeping can hamper an investigation of theft.

In one case that Carpenter worked on, a major museum discovered the disappearance of artifacts 15 to 20 years after the theft. Authorities knew where the artifacts were but could not recover them because the museum was unable to establish that the items had belonged to it; the museum’s most accurate inventory was from the 1920s, he said.

The advantages of reporting thefts are clear: Members of the public can help identify stolen art, and it’s more difficult for thieves to sell. In 2011, after a drawing attributed to Rembrandt was stolen from an exhibition at a hotel in Los Angeles, authorities released an image of the piece. Days later, it was left at a church.

However, there are also instances when keeping thefts out of the public eye is advantageous for investigative purposes, said Lynda Albertson, the chief executive of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, an organization that researches art crime.

In 2013, when thieves stole 27 pieces from the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, the police kept quiet about the theft and, as a result, recovered most of the pieces, she said.

“Sometimes they’re very quiet, not so talkative or splashy,” Albertson said of the division of Italian police that focuses on art crime. “That discretion has been quite helpful.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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