When a valuable item vanishes, a piece of history is gone. This is in addition to its intrinsic value.
Exact values are hard to establish but in 1978 the International Foundation for Art Research put losses in the U.S. about $12 million annually.
World-wide stealing from museums and private collections has increased in recent years, possibly because of rising prices of precious metals and stones in some of the artifacts.
Many museums are taking steps to beef up security without sacrificing the prime purpose of keeping valuable displays open to public view.
At Smithsonian Institute in Washington, officials are reluctant to discuss specific security steps they have taken but say these range from electronic surveillance to additional guards.
In recent years, thefts at Smithsonian have included such gems of history as George Washington’s favorite dentures (the lower plate was mysteriously returned) and two gold swords. One sword was a 38-inch ivory-handled, jeweled instrument given by the British government to a U.S. naval officer in 1856.
“We recovered this sword,” said an FBI official, “but the ivory handle and all the jewels were gone.”
A few years ago large sums of gold were stolen from the traveling Gray Collection when it was at the Paine Art Center in Oshkosh, Wis. One historical institute in Fort Worth, Tex., was ransacked by burglars who used trucks to haul away paintings, rugs and furniture.
The public can help in the fight against thefts by reporting suspicious acts.
Officers indicate that sometimes the thief who works inside – the guard, janitor or museum official – is the most difficult one to track. One key here is careful screening to weed out potential thieves.
Museums are our best repositories for preservation and display of artistic, historical and scientific objects. Continual vigilance is needed to adequately protect them.