Tighter security followed thefts of Baltimore art


Whenever the theft of a major artwork happens, like that of Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream" from the National Art Museum in Oslo, Norway, over the weekend, it's only natural to wonder if it could happen here.

It could, and it has.

Baltimore's three most prominent museums -- the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery and the Maryland Historical Society -- have all sustained thefts, large and small, over the years.

When it happens, museums invariably talk about beefing up their security, but they're reluctant to go into details. Recently, though, they've been more forthcoming in the hope that publicizing some security measures will deter thefts.

In the summer of 1988, 145 objects primarily of Asian art and worth about $1 million were stolen from the Walters Art Gallery. They were taken from display cases over a period of weeks by a museum security guard who rearranged the cases to cover his tracks.

The theft was discovered in mid-August of that year. All the works except nine ancient gold objects, which had been melted down, were recovered at the guard's home. He subsequently confessed and was sentenced to a year's work release.

Security at the Walters has since been increased, including a specific measure to prevent the kind of theft that occurred, said Kate Sellers, acting director. To prevent a thief from "artfully rearranging a case," the gallery keeps photographs of the way the art is installed, she said.

In addition, she said security staff and electronic surveillance equipment have been added.

In Norway, the National Gallery yesterday tightened security procedures and replaced windows with stronger glass. It was reported thieves who took about one minute Saturday to steal the painting, left a note: "Thanks for the poor security."

The Baltimore Museum of Art has sustained three thefts in the past decade. The first was the most significant. In December 1984, the museum announced 34 old master prints had been stolen from a temporary storage building off the museum's premises, probably over a period of years. The prints included rare works by Rembrandt and Durer.

Seventeen of them were subsequently recovered, and the museum received an insurance settlement of $337,000 for the rest. The case was never definitively solved, but suspicion centered on a member of a museum acquisitions committee, who died in 1984.

All of the museum's collections, including prints, are now stored at the museum, said Jay M. Fisher, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs.

In 1987 a portrait miniature of George Washington valued at $25,000 was stolen from a display case but recovered in days. And in 1989, 16 antique watches worth $150,000 were stolen from another case and recovered within weeks. Individuals were charged in both cases.

Director Arnold L. Lehman said the BMA has instituted major improvements in its security system in recent years. In 1992, the museum underwent a $500,000 security upgrade including wireless alarms on display cases, additional security gates, improved closed circuit television and cameras with recording devices in them in the galleries. The Walters also has such cameras.

The Maryland Historical Society has had two small thefts in recent years -- of a pistol and a silhouette. A major theft occurred there more than 20 years ago. It was originally reported that more than 200 items, including jewelry and coins, valued at $100,000 were taken. Some of the coins were subsequently found at the society, and some other items have been recovered over the years, said chief curator Jennifer F. Goldsborough.

The MHS has also upgraded security, she said, including "TV cameras, better protocols for access to storage and more and better training for guards and all the staff."

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