Art treasures vanishing for want of protection

THEFTS of art from Slovak galleries and museums have risen significantly over the last several years, police say, due almost entirely to shoddy security or the complete absence of protection.

THEFTS of art from Slovak galleries and museums have risen significantly over the last several years, police say, due almost entirely to shoddy security or the complete absence of protection.

Based on unofficial police data, approximately 150 valuable works of art disappear in Slovakia every year. The fact that Slovak cultural institutions do not have the money for expensive security devices is making the lives of thieves easier, and is proving a boon to the illegal trade in stolen art.

The number of thefts in which thieves target pieces of art on the orders of a collector is increasing. Such robberies are well prepared in advance, and the thieves unerringly pick the most precious objects.

"After 1989, a class of nouveaux riches appeared. Some of them wanted to follow modern global trends such as collecting artwork. This may explain some of the thefts," said Bratislava region police spokeswoman Marta Bujňáková for The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak police corps registers about 1,000 stolen pieces of art in its national database, of which 182 are paintings, and more than 400 sculptures and antiques.

The number of annual art thefts is still lower than in many foreign countries, but is expected to grow. According to the Culture Ministry, insufficient security measures are most often to blame for the thefts. The problem is particularly severe at smaller galleries and museums in outlying regions that are under-funded and unable to afford effective security equipment.

Galleries and museums do not receive any special funding for security measures even though the majority of their collections form part of Slovakia's cultural heritage.

Culture Ministry spokes-woman Martina Pavlíková noted that such institutions were not using all of the tools at their disposal to secure their valuables. "Cultural institutions can ask for a grant from a new system to protect our cultural heritage," she said. "The grants can cover 50 percent of the projected costs."

However, with high-quality security systems costing thousands or even millions of crowns, smaller galleries are frequently unable to cover even half of the expense.

But recent gallery and museum robberies underline the importance of quality security systems, whoever is footing the bill.

In January 2006, for example, unknown culprits stole five precious paintings from the Tekov Museum in central Slovakia's Levice. The police arrived within three minutes after an alarm went off, but they were too late. The thieves had made a hole in the fence behind the gallery in advance, and managed to escape with about Sk4.5 million (€120,000) in loot, including two paintings each by Martin Benka and Janko Alexy, and one by Edmund Gwerk.

The gallery had security doors and locks but lacked bars and a camera system. Ján Dano, the head of the facility, said the local monuments bureau (pamiatkový úrad) had not allowed the gallery to install bars and cameras because it did not want to impair the historical appearance of the building. A wireless system had been dismissed as too expensive.

In 2005 police registered 11 robberies of facilities containing antiques and art.

In May 2005 an unknown culprit pried open the security bars on the Jan Hála Gallery in Važec near northern Slovakia's Liptovský Mikuláš and broke the glass on the doors. He took 26 oil paintings, 1 book illustration, and 2 lithographs by Jan Hála, a famous Slovak artist. Damages were set at Sk3.5 million (€90,000).

In February 2005 three wooden sculptures from the 15th and 16th centuries disappeared from the Roman-Catholic church of St Barbara in Jazernica village. Damages were estimated at Sk4 million (€110,000).

An unknown culprit also stole a romantic sculpture of an Árpárd knight from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries from a park at the Betliar manor house near Rožňava.

The Betliar case illustrates the importance of prevention and property protection. The park had no fence and the sculpture was not protected in any way. Even after the theft, no security measures were taken. As a result, three months later, two more 19th century sculptures were stolen from the same park. Overall damages were almost Sk300,000 (€7,900).

Three cases in 2004 are also worth mentioning. In the spring of that year, the Západoslovenské múzeum (Western Slovak Museum) in Trnava announced the theft of several objects, and reported another theft in October 2004. Combined damages were set at Sk1.5 million (€40,000).

In August 2004, 40 precious weapons worth Sk3 million (€80,000) were stolen from the Červený Kameň castle near Častá.

In one of the only instances where a thief was apprehended, in November 2004 precious stones worth Sk250,000 (€6,600) disappeared from the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava. The culprit was later caught by police trying to fence the stones to jewellers in Slovakia.

Curiously, it was not until three days after the robbery was actually committed that a museum visitor noticed the stones were missing. When questioned, the thief said he had seen the stones were not secured, and had simply made the most of the opportunity.

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