Sunday, October 8, 2023

Museum Insider Theft

The vast majority of museum employees are honest hard-working people, but those who are not are more intriguing.

As you know from my Missive on September 17 “How Many is Too Many” the British Museum has fired the curator who was accused of stealing 2,000 (now rounded down to 1500) objects and selling them on eBay.

Much if not most of a museum collection remains in storage. Therefore, it is the easiest place to pluck objects from as you don’t leave any blank spaces on a wall or in an exhibition case.

On April 7, 2023, Daniel Cassady reported in Art News that two years earlier an aide at the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana went on a 4-month pillaging spree. He was caught on a security camera trying on various moccasins to see which might fit. Not all the objects he filched have yet been retrieved. The piece that was featured was a Great Plains Men’s fur necklace with grizzly bear claws and brass beads.

Most published examples of employee theft that I could find happened abroad. It may be that since American museums depend on donations from the public to survive, they keep inside jobs as quiet as possible. It could also be that in the U.S non-curatorial museum employees prefer cash. At the Field Museum in Chicago, an individual in charge of ticket sales pleaded guilty to pocketing cash receipts of over $335,000. At the Whitney Museum employees in a similar position, one was accused of stealing $850,000 and another a paltry $30,000!

In Guangzhou, China a former library curator at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, was charged with selling authentic art works and replacing them with fakes that he forged on his own. Prosecutors claim that he took advantage of his post to steal more than 140 works between 2002 and 2010, including traditional Chinese paintings by renowned artists Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

In the Macedonian Capital, Skopje six employees including the museum’s director were convicted in 2015 of stealing 162 artifacts from the state-owned museum and selling them abroad.

Most thieves get caught eventually even though they try to sell their purloined goods as far away as possible from where they stole them and as annonymously. But some don’t and are caught right away. On September 25 Jo Lawson-Tancred reported the following story in ArtNet News regarding a serious “dummkopf” and I use the word advisedly for the translation of the German word is bonehead or fool.

This unidentified employee worked in the collections management department of the Deutsch’s Museum in Munich. His modus operandi was to take paintings that were in storage and put copies in their place. He stole 3 paintings between 2016 and 2018 then gave them to an auction house, Ketterer, in the same city telling them they had belonged to his grandparents. One painting, Franz von Stuck’s “The Frog King” of 1891, sold to a Swiss gallery for $74,000 leaving the employee with around $50,000 after various fees were deducted. When questioned about their research of the provenance a spokesperson for Ketterer said it had “simply not been possible to identify them as stolen”!

Note to thief, do not put art you have stolen from the museum in a public auction for all to see and certainly not in the same city as your museum!!!

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