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Kunsthal Rotterdam Theft: Where Were the Guards? (plus director’s statement)

Among the Missing: Matisse, “La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune” (“The Reader in White and Yellow”), 1919, Triton Foundation

Where were the guards? Apparently there weren’t any.

By now you’ve no doubt seen some of the numerous reports and speculative commentary regarding yesterday’s 3 a.m. theft of seven Impressionist, modern and contemporary works that were among over 150 pieces in a loan exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, drawn exclusively from the Triton Foundation.

The display “marks the very first public showing of the carefully and lovingly assembled Triton Collection,” according to the museum’s initial announcement. “The Triton Foundation aims to make its existing collection and new material accessible to the general public [but, presumably, not to thieves]. By generously loaning works from the collection to museums and temporary exhibitions all over the world, and for lengthy periods of time, all the works from the collection can be seen in public.”

At the risk of seeming to blame the victim, my reading of the first of the reports (from the NY Times) linked in this post’s first paragraph suggests that this is the latest installment in the continuing melodrama that’s not just a whodunnit, but also a “where-were-the-guards” conundrum.

Doreen Carvajal writes:

The museum’s director, Emily Ansenk, said that night measures involved “technical security,” with no guards [emphasis added] but camera surveillance and alarms.

Museum officials said that the police had arrived on the museum grounds within five minutes of the alarm.

As any burglarized homeowner knows, a five-minute response time isn’t good enough when you’re dealing with grab-and-go criminals. What I said in my recent post about deface-and-escape vandals at the Tate Modern and the Menil Collection is even more pertinent here: Art museums should not be lured into false complacency with high-tech gadgetry. They are no substitute for the most basic, essential component of art stewardship—human guards. They are indispensable as on-the-ground, rapid-response foot soldiers in the war against thieves and vandals.

Here’s director Ansenk’s statement on the theft, posted on her institution’s website:

We would like to inform you about the event that took place at the Kunsthal in the early hours of Tuesday 16 October. What happened is every museum director’s nightmare. Despite the Kunsthal having a state-of-the-art security system, seven top works were stolen from the “Avant-Gardes” exhibition.

It concerns the following works:

Pablo Picasso: ‘Tête d’Arlequin’ (1971)

Henri Matisse: ‘la Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune’ (1919)

Claude Monet: ‘Waterloo Bridge, London’ (1901)

Claude Monet: ‘Charing Cross Bridge, London’ (1901)

Paul Gauguin: ‘Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, dite la Fiancée’ (1888)

Meyer de Haan: ‘Autoportrait’ (circa 1889 – ’91)

Lucian Freud ‘Woman with Eyes Closed’ (2002)

These are unique works which have already been exhibited all over the world, are well documented and were now being exhibited together for the first time ever. We, the Kunsthal, and the Triton Foundation Board are deeply shocked by what has happened, but we will not allow it to defeat us. We have all decided that the exhibition will go ahead as usual tomorrow. All those involved want the general public to be able to continue admiring exceptional art collections like this one.

I would like to say, however, that news of this incident came like a bombshell to the entire artworld. And not only the museum world, but also Alderman Laan and Rotterdam City Council. They have all promised to lend their support. The police arrived at the Kunsthal just five minutes after the alarm was raised and they began a technical investigation immediately.

Neither we nor the Triton Foundation will be making any further announcements about the theft until this investigation is complete. We are confident that this serious matter is being given the highest priority and is now in good hands with the police. Perhaps we should add that all the stolen works have been internationally registered and described and are therefore unsaleable. We are not prepared to comment on the value of the works.

The Wall Street Journal has published a slideshow of the seven stolen works (courtesy of the Dutch Police press service), here.

an ArtsJournal blog