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To Catch a Thief: Why American Museums Are Safer Than European Museums

A recent Washington Post article by Jacqueline Trescott and Dan Zak made the bold, but hard to argue with statement that United States museums foil thieves much better than their European counterparts do, for a vast number of reasons, some of which are beyond the control of museum administrators. Art crime is a $6 million USD business, but a fraction of that happens on American soil. What, if anything, can United States art institutions, the new kid on the art world block, teach the old heads of Europe?

The recent theft of $123 million USD in Cubist and Post-Impressionist art from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, and others, spurred the writers to ask experts why such heists almost never happen to American museums. (Braque’s 1906 Olive Tree Near Estaque  [shown] belongs to the missing from the Paris theft.) First of all, the fact that America’s a much younger country than the European countries that fed its population in the beginning. Younger countries establishing a culture late in the game have the advantage of building newer museums. European art museums, from the Louvre on down, show their age when it comes to security technology. America’s newfangled security measures present just too difficult an obstacle for thieves, especially when they know that easier targets, often with just as good if not better collections, await overseas.

Secondly, the jigsaw nature of cheek-and-jowl European countries means that art thieves in Europe can cross a border relatively quickly after striking, whereas the wide open spaces of America require thieves to travel long distances to elude the reach of our laws. It’s purely an accident of location, but it’s an accident that benefits American museums.

Lastly, it also helps that American museums are in thief-unfriendly territories such as wide-open streets, rather than the blinded alleyways that surround mansions and castles converted to museums in Europe. The one exception that proves the rule that American museums don’t get pilfered because of location is the biggest heist of the last two decades—the assault on Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Five hundred million dollars in art remains on the loose two decades later. The Gardner looks and feels like an old European museum, which is what Isabella Stewart Gardner would love to have heard, were she still alive, but in that case “European” means “easy” for art robbers.

The answer for European museums is, of course, newer museums, or at least newer security measures. However, to jettison hundreds of years of art history tied to the grand old museums seems simply unreasonable. So, that answer is really no answer at all. Perhaps the real solution is to kill the black market that answers the demand for black market art. As the experts in the article attest, the thieves rarely can sell the painting, which an art expert will sniff out in seconds as stolen. Without provenance—the paper trail of any painting of worth—the work isn’t worth whatever it’s painted on. Many a great work of art stolen from a museum wall languishes without a buyer due to its worth.

Therefore, the modern look and feel of American museums thwarts the best efforts of art villains like the museums of no other country on earth. Sadly, we care on aggregate so little about art that this sense of security may lull us into a false sense of security, if we care about art at all. The modern problem of the big-time art heist seems only a moment away in America, after much grinding of teeth over the economy and the inevitable spike in crime of all kinds. Whether thieves can ever succeed, however, remains a different question.

We may not win the World Cup this year, but America certainly holds the title for safest art museums in the world, if only by accident.

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