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Safe Heritage

Theft of collections: a checklist

What things do you need to watch out for to prevent collection theft? And what should you do if it happens in spite of your precautions? This checklist has been compiled as an aid for institutions that are responsible for managing collections.

Theft prevention

  1. Prepare a risk analysis
  2. Document your collection in writing and photos
  3. Take appropriate measures
  4. Instruct staff members
  5. Check the building surroundings
  6. Watch out for unusual behaviour 

What to do in the event of risk?

  1. Take immediate measures
  2. Be cautious in dealings with the press
  3. Contact other cultural heritage organisations affected by theft 

Theft prevention

1. Prepare a risk analysis

  • Assess your collection’s potential attractiveness for thieves. Thieves are not interested in cultural or historical value but solely in financial value. For which objects is there a lucrative market? To what extent do the objects contain valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper or precious stones? Which objects would be attractive to hold for ransom – known as ‘art-jacking’?
  • Imagine theft scenarios: how could objects be stolen? Test each scenario in practice and then determine whether additional measures are needed. Prepare a new risk analysis for all special events and for any and all changes in the daily routine, new exhibitions and renovations. A new situation often calls for different measures.
  • A convenient way to determine which combination of security measures best fits the building premises is by establishing risk classes.

2. Document your collection in writing and photos

  • Make sure all objects in the collection are fully documented. At a minimum, descriptions should conform to Object ID requirements. Without proper documentation, it will be much more difficult to trace and identify stolen objects.
  • In the object descriptions, pay special attention to distinctive features such as inscriptions, stamps and marks. Also note any damage such as dents and scratches.
  • Take clear photographs of all such details. That way, you can prove that the object belongs to your collection once it has been found.
  • Save all object records and photographs in a secure location.

3. Take appropriate measures

Create barriers

  • The more organisational, structural and electronic barriers there are in and around the building, the more time it will take to steal an object. Barriers discourage thieves. Always also test barriers yourself.
  • Also ask the fire brigade whether it is permitted to install a delayed egress system on emergency doors, which can be a critical impediment to escape.

Check all operational layers for weaknesses

  • Could valuable objects easily be taken during opening times? If so, create barriers.
  • Are the display cases fitted with effective locks?
  • Are the display cases sturdy in their construction? Are they fitted with burglar-resistant glass, if necessary? Are spaces inside the building structurally compartmentalised?
  • Are there glass doors or walls requiring reinforcement, such as by means of metal roll-down shutters?
  • Is the building exterior burglar-resistant? Consider not only all openings (windows, doors and roof windows) but also single-course walls. Also refer to standards that in your country perhaps are defined for the burglar resistance of construction materials.
  • Are the building grounds easily accessible? Prickly bushes can provide an effective defence.

Review security measures

  • Are valuable objects sufficiently protected?
  • Are valuable objects secured?
  • Are the display cases secured?
  • Are the spaces inside the building secured?
  • Is the building as a whole secured?
  • Are the building premises secured?
  • Are there security cameras at strategic points? Do they offer an unobstructed view of the area? Are recordings saved? Is the quality of the recordings sufficient to be used for an investigation if necessary?
  • Are there effective alarm follow-up procedures in place for both daytime and night-time hours? 

 4. Instruct staff members

  • Implement a clear key management policy.
  • Train staff and hold regular drills to practise procedures for e.g. alarm follow-up and collection assistance.
  • Do not inform staff members about the nature and quality of security systems.
  • Keep an eye out for internal theft.

5. Check the building surroundings

  • Keep the premises as clear as possible: ladders, containers, vehicles and the like can be an invitation to burglars. Install anti-climb and anti-scale security.
  • Make sure that that the grounds are effectively and well lit.
  • Be attentive to any signs that burglars are preparing to break in.
  • If you have any neighbours, agree to inform each other about anything that seems suspicious.

6. Watch out for unusual behavior

  • Break-ins and thefts are often plotted over one or more visits to a collection, so be attentive to your visitors’ behaviour. If you notice any unusual behaviour, make sure to discuss it with other members of your organisation.
  • If you have a CCTV system, make sure that camera recordings of this unusual behaviour are saved and can be supplied to the police. Register the unusual behaviour in an incidents registration system. This information can be valuable to the police.

What to do in the event of theft

1.  Take immediate measures 
  • Seal off the building perimeter straight away to prevent the destruction of any evidence. Ensure no one can access the crime scene until the police have finished their investigation.
  • File a police report straight away.
  • Arrange any necessary support for employees and visitors, calling in victim support if needed.
  • If there has been a theft of objects on loan, notify the lending institution immediately.
  • If the objects are insured, notify the insurance company immediately.
  • Register the stolen objects with the Art Loss Register and Interpol.
  • Register the theft in an incidents registration system.

2. Be cautious in dealings with the press

  • Appoint a single spokesperson and decide on how to announce the news in consultation with the police.
  • Explain to all other staff at your organisation that they are not permitted to talk to the press.
  • Do not disclose any information about your organisation’s security system for heritage objects. Stick to the facts. Do not let yourself be lured into drawing premature conclusions; simply refer to the police investigation that is under way.
  • Do not comment on the financial value of the stolen objects. Focus on their cultural and historical value, their importance within the collection and their significance for society.

3. Contact other cultural heritage organisations affected by theft

  • Find out what you can learn from other organisations’ experiences. Safe Heritage is a division within the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency that can put you in touch with organisations previously affected by theft. 

Also see:

ICMS Handbook on Emergency Procedures