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Proper management by museums essential to prevent art theft

Publication date 4 September 2023

News that an employee had allegedly stolen artefacts from the British Museum prompted Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur to interview Paul W.L. Russell, LL.M. As such thefts are rather common, it is important that museums manage and protect their collections properly. What should they pay particular attention to?


Precious historical objects have disappeared from a storeroom of the British Museum in London. Although it is still unclear whether the objects were stolen or “just” went missing, a curator was sacked for this reason and the museum reported it to the police, while later the director of the museum resigned. How exceptional is this and could something like this happen in the Netherlands too? What are the consequences for a museum if artefacts disappear? And how can museums limit the loss of cultural property as much as possible? Paul W.L. Russell, LL.M., an expert on art and law, addresses these questions in in an interview by the Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur.

Art disappears from museums quite often

Although the British Museum stresses that it is exceptional for works of art and historical objects to “just disappear” from museums, the practice is different. This does not so much involve spectacular external thefts such as two Van Goghs from the Van Gogh Museum or paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but internal thefts by museum staff who take objects. Or it simply involves sloppiness in administration, resulting in artefacts not being recovered.

The Cultural Heritage Agency lists examples of this on its website, showing how objects can go missing. These include situations such as objects that have not been registered at all, objects given to an employee as parting gift, art destroyed because the cleaner did not recognise it as art, as well as theft and unreturned loans.

The Cultural Heritage Agency also maintains a list of objects from the National Collection that have gone missing. Currently, the list cannot be consulted online, but it is known that in 2008 there were over three thousand objects on it. Including works by modern artists such as Lucebert, Jan Sluyters and Jeroen Henneman, as well as older artworks by the likes of Charles Leickert and Isaac van Ostade. The collection of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden was even found to be missing a quarter of its objects, after the museum’s warehouse had been freely accessible for years. In short: the situation the British Museum is now facing is not an incident, but a structural problem that museums need to take into account in their operations and policies.

Limiting liability and problems

Museums often have objects in their collection that they manage for others, for example,  objects from the national collection or properties belonging to the municipality or a family fund. And then there are also temporary loans. In all these cases the museum can be held liable for missing objects. In addition, the museum will also have to ensure that missing objects can be recovered.

It is therefore important for the museum to ensure that it has sound records that register the characteristics of all objects it owns or manages by:

  • Describing the object and all its parts
  • Photographic recording of all characteristics of objects, e.g. signature and any notes on the object
  • Describing the provenance
  • Chipping objects and linking this to data in the records

The last step is also practical with a view to improving security. An alarm can also be linked to the chip, registering that the object leaves the storage room without permission. Good security also increases the chances of the museum being able to rely on any insurance instead of having to pay for the damage itself.

With long-term loans, it is in the interest of both parties to agree that the condition of the loaned object is reported annually and that the lender has the right to check (or have checked) the condition themselves.

Watch the programme

You can watch the interview with Paul W.L. Russell, LL.M. on the Nieuwsuur website.

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