Museums debate the best way to protect irreplaceable works of art
The daring midday theft of two major artworks from the Munch Museum in Oslo last August has focused the art world’s attention on the complex issues of museum security and insurance. When armed, masked thieves tore Edvard Munch’s most famous image, The Scream (1893), and a second painting, Madonna(1893–94), from the museum’s walls and escaped to a waiting car, it was a harsh reminder that works on public display can be especially vulnerable to theft and damage.
Experts said that more surprising than the museum’s lack of an effective surveillance system was the revelation that the artworks were not insured against theft. Art-insurance specialists say that such security and insurance shortfalls are all too common, particularly at European national museums.
Jorunn Christophersen, head of information at the Munch Museum, says the institution, which is owned and insured by the municipality of Oslo, is “not insured against theft because the city of Oslo has decided it is simply too expensive—the collection is of enormous value. We’re insured against fire and water damage but not against robbery.”
Says Christiane Fischer, CEO of AXA Art Insurance, which is a member of the global AXA Group, “I personally don’t understand their logic. If they add theft coverage, the price difference is certainly not great” as compared with insurance premiums covering only water and fire damage.
The Munch Museum has also been criticized for its lack of security. In many cases where particular works are of such high value, says Fischer, “what you mostly see is that they are bolted to the wall and individually secured and alarmed.” In the recent incident, thieves were able to tear the paintings off the wall. Police later found parts of the discarded frames.
Images obtained from the museum’s surveillance system have been of little or no use because the system “is old and didn’t give us such a good picture of what happened,” reports Christophersen. On September 6, the museum closed for several weeks to install a new security system and additional upgrades at an estimated cost of $8 million.
Robert Graham, director of insurance broker Blackwall Green in London, says many national museums in the United Kingdom and Europe lack theft insurance because of budget constraints. In the United Kingdom, Graham points out, government-funded museums operate under tight budgetary restrictions and are rarely allowed to use funds for commercial insurance-theft policies for their permanent collections. But, he says, in some cases such restrictions are being loosened slightly, usually in instances where a museum can demonstrate the risk is so great that the premium is “money well spent.”
Choosing an alternative, some museums obtain coverage for the cost of recovery and restoration in the event of a theft, Graham notes. “They’re not insuring the value of the work but, rather, buying a policy that covers the cost of services by art-recovery experts to help locate and return a stolen work.”
American museums have adopted a decidedly different approach. Fischer says, “There is no large, important museum in this country that doesn’t have all the risk policies—we don’t just say you’re insured against three types of risk.” There are common exceptions, she adds, such as government seizure and nuclear or biochemical attacks, but on the whole, “museums in this country are run more like businesses because they have boards—and trustees who donate their own artworks not just for their cultural value but as financial assets.”
If a high-value, one-of-a-kind artwork that is stolen or destroyed cannot be replaced, Fischer explains, museums can attempt to buy a similar one or “at least take the money and upgrade security.” Additionally, most theft policies give a museum the right to buy back the work from the insurer—for the amount of the insurance claim—if it is recovered after an insurance payout has been made.
Without an insurance policy for theft, the Munch Museum faces significant out-of-pocket expenses. If and when the fragile Munch paintings are recovered, no money for repairs will be forthcoming from the existing fire and flood insurance coverage.