"Works of art should not be hung in bunkers"

His eyes follow you round the room: security has been reviewed at Swiss museums and galleries Keystone

Following the return of a stolen Cézanne masterpiece, the president of the Swiss Museums Association tells about balancing security and accessibility.

This content was published on April 15, 2012 minutes

Gianna Mina explains what has changed in the Swiss art world since the “theft of the century” in February 2008 and the difficult choices facing museum directors and curators.

On Thursday, police from Serbia and Switzerland recovered Cézanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest”, worth an estimated SFr100 million ($110 million), which had been stolen from the Bührle collection in Zurich in 2008. Four men were captured as they tried to sell it.

A Swiss expert authenticated the oil on canvas painting, which was stolen along with three other masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas.

Art experts have suggested the robbers took advantage of low security at the Swiss museum without knowing about the paintings or how difficult it can be to sell such well-known stolen art works. What has changed for museums and galleries since 2008?

Gianna Mina: First of all we’ve become aware that this can happen – that museums are not secure just because they are called museums and that we have to do something about our treasures.

But on the other hand we have also thought about the central point that museums must not become bunkers: they are a lively space, they have visitors. One of our main tasks is not only to preserve works of art, look after them, hang them properly and protect them, but to work with the public to make our houses accessible.

This is a very difficult balance to find – either you secure your works 100 per cent and then they are not made available to the public, or you let the public in and you have this risk, which materialised four years ago in a very striking way.

So museum directors and curators have gone through a sort of security check-up. They have realised that certain paintings and treasures should probably not be hung in the first room after the entrance hall! But we must be aware that we cannot make them absolutely safe. The destiny of works of art is not to be hung in bunkers but to be seen. Has the security/accessibility balance shifted towards more security?

G.M.: Of course the big houses with big treasures also have more security guards and technical protection and so on. The medium-sized museums which lived in a kind of more accessible way so the public could see their treasures – they probably went through their checklist and have certainly improved their systems.

But it’s also a question of budget – spending a lot of money on improving a system might mean working less on conservation, publications and exhibitions. That also is a choice one has to make and it is a very difficult one. Are museums safer than private houses?

G.M.: It’s difficult to say, but I think so. They are safer because the value of these works of art and insurance demand a certain level of security. So there are alarm systems, guards during the day. The more vulnerable areas are the smaller, regional museums, but of course the theft happened in Zurich. So thieves probably go where the big works are. Are Swiss museums and galleries targeted more than those in other countries?

G.M.: We probably have the most dense museum landscape in the world. We have extraordinary collections – private collections which are made public. So thieves know that the quality of works is here and we have probably also lived in a kind of limbo for decades thinking this would not happen – and certainly not in Zurich. We’ve woken up and become aware that the density of this museum landscape makes Switzerland a particularly interesting place for [thieves]. Are most stolen works of art discovered?

G.M.: There have been more and more happy endings in recent years, because Interpol works better. The internet also helps. There are lists we should look at when a work of art is offered for acquisition.

So this network helps famous works of art turn up – who would buy an important work of art which is on one of these lists? There are probably other areas such as archaeology which are still in great danger – there are private collectors all over the world.

So there are not always happy endings, but there are more than there used to be.

Swiss art heists

At the end of the 1980s three armed robbers made off with 21 Renaissance paintings from a Zurich art gallery. The case was made public in 1989 when FBI agents arrested two Belgians and recovered SFr6.75 million worth of stolen works.

In 1994 seven Picasso paintings worth an estimated $44 million were stolen from the Bollag gallery in Zurich. They were recovered in 2000. A Swiss and two Italians were jailed for the theft.

In 2003 a Swiss court sentenced a French man to four years in prison for the theft of art works in a six-year European crime spree. Stéphane Breitwieser was found guilty of stealing 69 works in Switzerland worth more than SFr1 million. Part of his haul was destroyed by his mother.

On February 6, 2008 two paintings by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso were stolen from an exhibition of the artist's works at the Seedamm culture centre in Pfäffikon, canton Schwyz. The 1962 "Tête de cheval" (Horse's head) and the 1944 "Verre et pichet" (Glass and jug), both on loan from the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany, are believed to be worth several million Swiss francs.

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Bührle collection

French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism constitute the core of the collection, which also contains the Nabis, Cubists and other representatives of the French avant-garde after 1900.

The collection is rounded off by sections devoted to earlier periods, in particular 1600s Dutch painting and Italian painting of the 16th-18th centuries.

Bührle acquired most of his pictures and sculptures between 1951 and 1956. In 1960 his family placed a representative selection of about 200 pictures and sculptures in a foundation and opened it to the public.

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