Art thieves target more homes than museums

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More than a year after a spectacular SFr180 million ($165 million) art theft at a Zurich museum, experts have been exchanging tips on tightening security.

This content was published on June 30, 2009 - 23:12

But a Zurich conference has heard that valuable works are far safer on public view than in private homes despite the biggest heist in Swiss history, at the Bührle Collection, which took place in February last year.

Statistics reveal that only 11 out of 846 stolen art works were taken from museums in Switzerland in 2008. Four of these were valuable Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet paintings snatched at gunpoint from the Bührle private museum.

The vast majority of thefts (476) took place at private households, according to Zurich city police art crime expert Roger Grab.

"The contents of private households have less security than museums and that presents more opportunities for burglars to carry out easier thefts," he told swissinfo.ch.

"Security at museums is generally high, but there are some weak points. These are mainly staff not paying enough attention or too few staff on duty, but sometimes technology could be improved as well."

"No art theft increase"

Grab added that any perception that art theft was on the increase in Switzerland would have been coloured by the publicity surrounding the isolated, but spectacular Bührle robbery. His statistics showed the number of objects being taken fell in 2008 from the 1,470 works stolen in 2006 and the 901 recorded in 2007.

He also denied that there are now more professional gangs stealing art to order than in previous years.

The security conference was organized by the Swiss Museums Association in reaction to the Bührle thefts of a year ago. Museum chiefs gathered on Monday to hear expert advice from police, insurance, security and technology representatives.

Lukas Gloor, head of the Bührle Collection, was also on hand to explain how swift dissemination of information helped to recover two of the lost paintings within a matter of days.

Dorothee Messmer, president of the Swiss Museums Association, was adamant that Switzerland had some of the best security arrangements in the world.

Museum or bank?

"But we have a dilemma, museums are not banks and objects must be presented to the public. To put them into a cellar makes no sense," she told swissinfo.ch.

The dilemma was emphasized by the Bührle robbery last year. Speaking to swissinfo.ch at the time, Gloor said the museum would have to consider sacrificing the "intimate appeal" for visitors with enhanced security measures, such as glass screens.

"I'm afraid this means that we have reached a new level of protection which we have to face in the future, particularly as a small museum," he said last year.

Messmer hoped that the conference would help museums better safeguard their valuable displays without disappointing visitors.

"The information day is designed to raise awareness of security strategies, particularly in smaller museums, and make people pay attention to the issue. Robbery remains a problem, but we can minimize the risk," she told swissinfo.ch.

Matthew Allen in Zurich, swissinfo.ch

Art theft in Switzerland

Official statistics reveal that 846 works of art were stolen in Switzerland in 2008. This compares to 901 the year before and 1,470 in 2006.

Some 476 pieces were taken from private households, 105 from galleries, 27 from religious buildings and 11 from museums. The rest were spread between castles, archeological digs and "other" locations.

Last year's Bührle robbery raised the value of stolen works to SFr18,776,176 ($17,325,191) in the city of Zurich alone. On average, Switzerland's largest city sees the theft of some SFr2 million worth of art works each year.

The majority of stolen works are valued in the region of SFr10,000 to SFr100,000.

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Swiss heists

The SFr180 million theft of four paintings from the Bührle Collection last year is believed to be the biggest art heist in Swiss history.

At the end of the 1980s three armed robbers made off with 21 Renaissance paintings from a Zurich art gallery. Some SFr6.75 million worth of stolen works were later recovered.

In 1994 seven Picasso paintings worth an estimated $44 million were stolen from the Bollag gallery in Zurich. They were recovered in 2000.

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.

On February 6, 2008 two paintings by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, worth "several million dollars", were stolen from an exhibition in canton Schwyz while on loan from Germany.

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