ICMS 2005 (and the curator did it; about insider theft)

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In April 2003 the Army Museum in Delft, The Netherlands, began preparations for a book history session. This museum has a large 500.000 volume library about the history of warfare, armies and weaponry. Besides there is a large collection of books with topographical prints, and there is a large and very diverse print collection.About half of all items in this unique library cannot be found in any other Netherlands library. Many books are from our Royal archives and from the library of our first king, William the first. Who reigned from 1814 till 1839. One can imagine that there is quite a difference from a cultural history perspective between a 17th century atlas from a private collection or the same atlas from the collection of William the first.

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During the preparations for this book history event one of the museums’ highlights, a book about Napoleons travels and battles in Italy was selected to show to the participants of this special event. This book was also shown a few years earlier at another book history event. To the complete stupefaction of museum staff the book appeared to have been robbed of 47 of 67 large folio size prints. Two years earlier it was still complete and intact. Not only had 47 prints disappeared but many others were severely damaged by what seemed to be a razor or sharp knife. Of this book only three complete copies are, or rather were, known worldwide. One in the British Library, one in the French National Library in Paris, and one in the Delft Army Museum.
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The discovery of this terrible damage to a unique book also was the beginning of the unmasking of the man who later appeared to have ruined, and stolen many books and prints from the museum’s library: the curator Alexander Polman. Mister Polman made a major mistake that finally would lead to his conviction and imprisonment. Upon the discovery of the book Polman pretended to be very shocked and stated that he had never before seen this book. That was a major mistake, for Polman himself presented this unique book at a book history event two years earlier. I will get back to this case later, but first I want to present a few general observations about insider theft and the characteristics of staff members stealing from the collection trusted to them.

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Comparison of recent cases of insider theft, and reports about older cases lead to several interesting conclusions.Internal thieves appear to have common characteristics. It goes without saying that not all thieves have all characteristics, but there really appear to be some common denominators.

–          most of the time internal thieves have a long time working relationship with the institution they work for, varying from some 10 to over 30 years.-          they are very well trusted and in independent positions. This goes with the specific profession of curators and librarians. Very often they are responsible for the acquisition of new collection items, they are recipients of donations, they are responsible for registration and they have unlimited access to depositories.

–          often the thieves are very valued experts in their profession and therefore beyond any suspicion. The librarian of the French national Library who was arrested last year was an international renowned expert of Hebrew manuscripts, and his wife – also arrested – was an expert in Coptic texts and manuscripts. The Danish librarian who was unmasked posthumously last year, was as a long term employee beyond any suspicion.

–          Internal thieves play an important social role. They participate in trade union negotiations, and perform an important role in the professional or private community. The curator of the Army Museum in Delft was very active in trade unions, and the French librarian was a well known benefactor of an international children organization.

–          These thieves really are the least expected people to be thieves of the collection in the institute they work for,

–          they even participate very actively in solving the thefts; both in Delft, The Netherlands, and in Paris, France, the thieves very actively participated in solving the crimes. In Delft this participation was so transparent that it finally led to the arrest of the curator.

–          when unmasked the institution gets the blame and peers are being accused of stealing as well. The lawyer of the Delft curator defended his client by stating that removing collection items from the library and museum almost was daily practice in the museum, and that his client now seemed to receive the blame for the museum’s chaotic organization.

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Insider theft also is a case of swindling. The thieves almost never are the introvert, remote colleagues with very little contact with co workers. Contrary, they are more likely the ones communicating with everyone in a seemingly open way. Co-workers are being misled as a daily routine. In the Army Museum the director was convinced that his stealing curator was the pearl in the crown of his organization. He had big plans with this talented man. However, during the investigation this man appeared to be a born liar, and always out to create trust where trust should not be given. After his arrest his 26 years young girlfriend was frustrated to read in the newspapers that her friend was aged 36 and not 33 as he had told her. Age appeared very important to him. A substantial part of his criminal earnings was invested in several hair implant treatments. His behavior during the interview Ton Cremers had with him was almost charming. He tried to gain confidence, and every time he was caught lying he was most willing to admit and right away started to build new mystifications.  More about this later, but first a few remarks about insider thefts.

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Insider thefts may continue for many years; The Army Museum curator has been stealing from the collection for over seven years, removing maybe over two thousands prints, hundreds of books and most likely some 20 paintings. Since some three years before his arrest he has been responsible for accepting donations. The museum used to receive some 40 donations of collections items per year. During his reign in the museum there were only very few donations. We managed to find several letters in which donators were being thanked for their gifts. However, the gifts themselves never reached the museum.-          The number of stolen items can be very vast. At the Army Museum curator’s neighbor a small museum of items stolen from the museum was found. In Copenhagen some 60 wooden boxes with stolen books were removed from the house of a stealing librarian. –          It may take years before insider thefts are discovered. The thefts in Copenhagen were not discovered until after the death of the stealing librarian when his wife and son tried to sell stolen items through auction.-          Insider thefts never are expected to take place in one’s own museum, library or archive, and sometimes for very long periods staff members remain convinced that missing items may be misplaced and not stolen. Insider theft is a very difficult phenomenon to deal with. Interviewing museum directors in Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium we are always confronted with the same reaction: I do trust my staff, and we cannot check their actions for that would be a sign of distrust, so they say. We always try to explain that trust should be based on the system and not on individual staff members. There is really nothing against random or even daily checks of staff leaving the premises like are done at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. –          It appears quite easy to sell stolen books and prints to ‘reputable’ dealers, via auction houses or E-bay. The Army Museum curator has been selling stolen books and prints to the same antiquarian book and print dealer for some six years. The librarian of the French National Library sold the items he stole through dealers and private collectors in France. Finally a very unique stolen Hebrew manuscript was sold through Christie’s in New York to a good faith buyer for 300.000 dollars, and the national library now has only one option left: put up the money to buy it back. The sale of stolen items over the internet sometimes leads to actions from alert individuals and consequently to the start of investigations and the discovery of the thieves responsible.

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The thieving of Sherrie Shaw, former conservator of the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, was identified after a Navy “Black Widow” Cross (shown left on top) offered for sale on the internet raised the suspicion of a military memorabilia collector. After contacting the museum the inventories were checked and several items, including the Black Widow Cross, appeared to be missing. This August Shaw was found guilty and faces up to 25 years in prison. Shaw keeps insisting that the items she sold belonged to her own collection. She sold them because she felt having a collection was in conflict with her job. Shaw worked at the museum for over 10 years

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Last year it was made public that National Archives and Records Administration of the United States is missing hundreds of historic documents and artifacts from its various collections. In April 2003 a civil war researcher noticed a letter written by Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis. A. Armistead, which he previously had viewed at the National Archives, was being auctioned on E-Bay. This led to the identification of Howard W. Harner Jr, a visiting researcher. Consequently this man was linked to the theft of more than 100 other documents. In May of this year he was sentenced to 2 years in prison.Also the thefts of archivist Shawn. P. Aubitz, who worked at the National Archives for 16 years, were discovered after an important document appeared for sale online. His thefts included dozens of presidential pardons, a 1863 warrant to seize the estate of Robert E. Lee and hundreds of autographed photographs of US astronauts. Aubitz was sentenced to 21 months in prison and a fine of over $73,000. Some of the pardons and the 1863 warrant have been recovered, but none of the photographs.In response to these thefts and all other missing items the National archives have upgraded their security measures towards employees and visiting researchers. This includes an awareness campaign that urges the public, employees and researchers to monitor auctions and internet sales and report suspicious materials to ‘missingdocuments@nara.gov”.

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In December last year it was discovered by the curator of the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauerdale, Florida, artifacts were disappearing at a fast pace. At the same time, a memorabilia collector from North Carolina contacted the Hall of Fame about some medals of Weissmuller he bought through eBay. These medals were among the items that were missing. On the right photographs of Johnny Weissmuller who dominated the swimming Olympics in 1924 and 1928 and also is famous for being Tarzan in the movies. On the left the man responsible for the theft of over 100 medals and cups. This man, Paul Nicholas Cristow, alias Joseph Mancino, had been temporarily employed for janitorial duties. Cristow was arrested after the police arranged a set up with the help of the coin store the stolen items were taken to and is awaiting trial.

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Insider theft is not a new phenomenon. Already in 1954 the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was confronted with an employee that had been stealing from the collections for about two decades. This man, Nevin, stole about 2500 objects, including musical instruments, ceramics, prints, paintings and 98 Japanese swords. At the time of discovery no stock-taking had taken place for 16 years. Nevin was sentenced to three years in prison for the thefts.  Also, there have been insider thefts at the Amsterdam City Archives many years ago. Last year the oldest known stock paper, stolen from this archive, was offered for sale by a German investment group.  In January of this year an assistant curator from Calcutta in India was arrested after he broke into the museum and stole a Buddha bust. He was ‘nailed’ on his fingerprints. Also in January a former depository worker of the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña was sentenced to 4 years in prison. The investigations into this man started in 1999 after it was noted that he offered for sale archaeological objects and engravings of the Italian architect Piranesi that originated from the museum. The Piranesi prints he tore out of the books from the museum and put for sale at an antiquities dealer. This dealer was sentenced to one and a half year in prison. Last month the former curator of the Danish Museum of Art & Design in Copenhagen was sentenced to 13 days in prison. This man stole over 100 objects, including delicate porcelain and glass objects, portrait paintings and a 2000-year old Japanese kimono ornament. The police believe that he stole the artifacts and one of his woman friends arranged for them to be sold at auctions abroad and in antique shops in Denmark. Also last month, the Former director of an Antiquities Department of Egypt, Abu Shanab, was sentenced to life time imprisonment, which in Egypt equals 25 years. He was found guilty on taking bribes and supplying smugglers with certificates that said genuine antiquities were fakes. Under Egyptian law, only fake antiquities can be exported.  Last week the Carabinieri arrested Giuseppe Ghilarducci, the Director of the Archive and Museum of the Cathedral of Lucca in Italy. He is charged with receiving and selling stolen property. Two chalices found were stolen in Rome and Terni. Also the found a 15th century canvas by Giovanni Marracci that is stolen from the Gello church in Pescaglia. Ghilarducci is granted home arrest and the investigations will continue.

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Michel Garel had been working at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris for 30 years when he was arrested last year for stealing a very valuable 13th century manuscript. Garel was an internationally esteemed specialist on Hebrew manuscript and author of several publications. Next to his work he was very active in an international children organization. The manuscript, called manuscript number 52, was sold by Garel to a dealer, and Garel himself signed a permit to allow this manuscript to leave France. To make sure that the manuscript would not be recognized the stamps were removed, pages were taken out and borders were cut. These changes to the manuscript were seemingly made by a professional hand, so it is very well possible that Garel was helped by someone unknown yet. The good faith buyer of this manuscript sold it at a Christie’s auction in New York to another buyer who took the manuscript to Jerusalem. In spite of the changes made to the manuscript it was recognized by a scholar in Jerusalem who warned the French national library. This led to the arrest of Garel and his wife who is regarded accomplice in the theft of at least 5 valuable manuscripts. Garel’s wife too was an esteemed scholar, specialized in Coptic writings. The present owner of the valuable 13th century manuscript bought it at Christie’s for 300.000,00 US dollars, and is willing to sell it for that price to the National Library. Already a few years it was known that books and manuscripts had disappeared from the Hebrew collection at the National Library. A stock taking in 2004 showed 30,000 books and almost 1200 of the most precious documents of the National Library are missing since the previous major shelf reading in 1947.  Last June Garel appeared in court for the theft of 25 rare manuscripts and 121 pages torn 14,15 and 16th century books and incunabula. Garel withdraw his initial confession. Now he claims he is being used as the perfect scapegoat for a massive security breach at the library.  Last year the Danish Royal library managed to recover 75 boxes with books from the home of a former employee. The librarian retired in 2000 and started to sell books he stole while working at the library. After he died his wife and son continued selling the stolen items. In total 80 rare manuscripts were put on the market through Christie’s in London and Swann in New York, for the equivalent of 1,50 million US dollars. Some 600 additional works were sold through other channels.   Last December an employee of the National Library of Stockholm committed suicide after admitting that he stole valuable works from the Stockholm University Library, the National Library and the Uppsala University’s Carolina Rediviva library. As a known librarian he was able to move relatively freely in many libraries. He also spent some time working at the Carolina Rediviva library.

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Max Ary, former President of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, is charged with counts ranging from money laundering to theft and sale of artifacts including items received on loan. About a year after Max Ary resigned after 27 years of service an internal audit showed that more than 100 artifacts were unaccounted for in the Cosmosphere’s collection. Among them 26 items on loan from the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Also Ary failed to inform NASA of the loss of an Omega mockup astronaut’s watch valued at $25,000, even after an insurance claim was submitted and a payment was made for the loss.Ary has pleaded innocent to all charges and in return Ary is now also suing the Cosmosphere. Last week he filed a suit claiming the Cosmosphere owes Ary hundreds of thousands dollar and also holds artifacts that belong to Ary personally.

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Insider theft in heritage institutions does not always concern collection objects: A former University of Texas at San Antonio library employee was found guilty this March on stealing over 200,000 US dollar in fines for overdue or lost materials. This scheme took place over a six-year period of time.  A former Boston Children Museum employee admitted to have been stealing $200,000 in a payroll scheme that lasted five years, starting just four days after her first day on the job. She was sentenced last May to 18 months in prison to be followed by three years supervised release. Also last May, the former director of the Phenix City-Russell County Library has admitted stealing $70,000 in library funds over a three year period. The thefts were uncovered in a city wide audit last year. A manager at the Whitney Museum of American Art dodged jail time by pleading guilty to the theft of $850,000 in ticket sales. The Whitney museum’s manager of visitor services, stole the money from January 2002 to July 2004 by selling tickets to visitors and then voiding the sales and pocketing the cash. Investigators found about $800,000 in a safe. The fact that she could make restitution helped her case.

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Also facility workers often have unsupervised and unrestricted access to collection storage areas: This month truck driver, Anthony Porcelli Jr, pleaded guilty to stealing a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from a warehouse at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Police identified Porcelli after reviewing video surveillance tapes. The untitled Basquiat painting is shown on the upper left side with a District Attorney standing next to it. In April of this year a Picasso (‘Nature morte a la charlotte’) missing for over a year from the Centre Pompidou in Paris was recovered. It turned out to be stolen by a drug addicted museum worker and was recovered from behind a wardrobe in a house in Paris.

Last month two former employees of a Bridgeton art shipping company pleaded guilty to stealing more than 130 works of art, including works of Picasso, Matisse, Dali, the Kooning and Archipenko. The works of art, which belonged to a Florida couple, had been sitting in storage since 1994. The theft was discovered after a man bought eight works from one of the offenders and came in contact with the real owners.

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Also this month a Malaysian artist, Raja Azhar Idris, found out his shop assistant had been stealing works of art since he was hired. He first realized something missing when a fellow artist asked him for a work he had in display for him and he could not find it. A friend told he had seen it in an auction house and subsequently he went there to look. When he arrived he found his shop assistant operating his own art shop. Over a period of 4 year a total of 20 paintings, glass works and handicraft were stolen. It is suspected that the arrested shop assistant is part of a syndicate headed by an art collector, who sells stolen art at low prices to auction houses and individuals. The police will continue to investigate the extent of the syndicate’s operations and if more art galleries have fallen victim to them.

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Last May Hendrikus Van Leeuwen appeared in court for the theft of over 2000 objects from the Australian Museum in Sydney. Already in 1997, just after Henk started to work as pest controller in the museum, staff noticed a leopard pelt missing. As a pest controller, Henk received unsupervised access to the entire collection of 13 million items. His thieving spree continued for over 5 years.In 2003 the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) started investigating the great amount of missing specimens of the museum. During a raid at the premises of Van Leeuwen and accomplice the ICAC discovered many skins, skeletons and preserved bodies with features in common with the missing items. Some even had the museum tags still attached. Among them even a stuffed lion that was first exhibited in the museum in 1911. Henk was not only a passionate private collector. He also ran a business that sold skulls and in 2002 he approached the city council to inquire about establishing a Zoological institute that should be competitive with the Australian museum.
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April 2003 a shock went through the Army Museum  Delft, The Netherlands when it was discovered that a most valuable and extremely rare book was robbed of almost all of its prints, and the remaining prints were severely damaged. This was the start of an investigation that did last for some 8 months and that ended with the conviction of the stealing curator. During the investigation it appeared that that some 2000 prints and 22 paintings went missing. Numerous books disappeared, or were robbed of their illustrations.The Army Museum’s library is not only a very specialized library; it also contains items that are very unique and not available in any other library.

The photograph you are seeing now is a portrait of the stealing curator – Alexander Polman – giving a speech after the thefts were discovered. This speech was given at a special museum event. He started his speech with a small statement saying that it is a real privilege to work in a museum, and that it is an absolute shame that anyone working in a museum would dare to steal from its collection. It was not until a few weeks after this speech that Mr. Polman was unmasked to be a thief himself.

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May 2003 Ton Cremers was invited by the general director of the museum to talk about the thefts they experienced. During this conversation it turned out that 22 of his staff had free access to the library’s and print room depositories. There was an electronic access control system but at the same time staff was in the possession of keys. At random they used their keys or their electronic cards to enter the depositories. So, the electronic history of access was useless. Besides, this history was erased weekly from the digital files.

Mr Polman, the stealing curator, was the most zealous worker of all. Everyday he was the first to arrive in the museum and about the last to leave. Besides he worked many weekends. Later on, after he had been arrested, it appeared that when h was alone early in the morning he started his looting of prints out of books and out of the print collection. Before his colleagues arrived he rolled the prints and put them in the trunk of his car parked at the inner court of the museum.  The general director was advised to not allow staff to park their cars any longer at this inner court, or to make sure that security performs random checks on leaving cars. Most unfortunately this advice was not followed.

Mr Polman was the only responsible for the print collection and was given a job updating the registration of the collection. What he really did was steal some 2000 prints from the collection and sold almost all of those to the same antiquarian book dealer. We will never know how many prints were stolen, for Polman also made the old handwritten registration disappear. Of the old registration of topographical prints nothing is left.

Polman was also responsible for the acquisition of prints that were presented as a gift to museum workers leaving for another job, or who had been employed by the museum for many years. These prints were bought by Polman at the same antiquarian bookshop were he sold the prints he stole. So, the museum really paid for prints that were stolen from it’s own collection. After Polman was arrested buying stolen prints from the antiquarian fence appeared to be another one of Polman’s mistakes. One staff member offered a print took it to the museum and it could be proofed without any doubt that this print was taken out of one of the museum’s books.

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June 2003 it still was not known who was the one who had been stealing from the museum’s library and print room. It was also not known how many books and prints were missing, and it was not known at all that 22 paintings left the museum.

Ton Cremers offered the museum director to interview each and every staff member with access to the library’s and print room depositories. In three days time 22 staff members were interviewed. One can imagine that there was very little time to interview each individual staff member, and that a very direct interviewing technique was demanded. However all of these interviews took place in a very friendly way. Except the one with Mr Polman. He kept twisting his statements again and again and appeared to be a born liar. The morning after this interview took place Ton Cremers invited him to speak to again, and advised him to leave his job at the museum. Which he did. After a few weeks he resigned.

During the interviews we received information that one of Polman’s colleagues had seen a book at Polman’s neighbor that might very well be from the museum. It took several weeks to get a search warrant from the district attorney and one very early Saturday morning the DA, military police, and Ton Cremers went to search this neighbors place. That turned out to become a very fascinating visit. The book was found very quickly and belonged without any doubt to the Army Museum. However, there was more. This three story house was full of watercolors, paintings, framed prints and photographs. All of which this neighbor had bought from Mr. Polman. He was quite frank about the source of his collection but not able to convince the DA that he bought all of these at good faith. So this man was arrested. At the same time it was decided that Mr. Polman who lived two doors further was arrested as well. A truck was ordered and a small museum had to be moved. So the search for just one book finally led to the recovery of a small museum. Most interestingly: none of the recovered items was reported missing at the museum.

The neighbor appeared to have a Porsche sports car in his garage. This car was given to him by a retired Dutch army colonel who lives in Scotland. This opened another track, this time to Scotland. Polman and his neighbor paid several visits to Scotland, and sold two of the museum’s paintings to this retired colonel. After long negotiations these paintings returned to the museum, but not until the museum paid compensation to this good faith buyer.

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Polman’s neighbor was part of a group of military personnel and collectors of military artifacts. This group visited very expensive clubs in London, United Kingdom, on a regular basis. Polman by far did not make enough money at his job as curator, but was very eager to also drive a sports car and join this gang to London. During three or four days visits they spent over $5000,00 dollars each. Polman is not on this photograph, but his neighbor is at the far right. In the middle is a Dutch general wearing his uniform in London against army regulations.

During the investigations there appeared to be several links to high ranking soldiers, and to board members of the museum. Several co workers in the museum appeared to have bought museum items from Polman without knowing these came out of the museum’s depositories. They could have known, but no questions were asked.

Some of these finally were forced to leave the museum.

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For some six years Polman has been selling books and prints to the same antiquarian book dealer. Estimates are that this man bought over 1000 prints. He knew Polman was working as a curator at the Army Museum for Polman did buy prints as well, and the book dealer wrote invoices in the name of the Army Museum. Most unfortunately the District Attorney granted us just one single afternoon to search this book dealer’s shop and storage. The DA really was not interested in the recovery of stolen goods, but only in the arrest of a possible fence. The bookdealer was arrested, but set free again after one day.

We were very much convinced that numerous prints in his two story shop belonged to the Army Museum. However, the bookdealer appeared to suffer from many senior moments. He really could not remember which prints he bought from Polman, but as soon as we were convinced that certain prints were from the museum all of a sudden his memory returned and he knew exactly these prints were not from the army museum. During the visit together with the DA some 50 prints were recovered.

After very long negotiations we were allowed to return to the bookshop for a second search, this time without the police and the DA. Upon arrival we discovered that the dealer had cleaned his complete shop and storage area, and only very few suspected prints remained.
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Lessons learned.We all know that security belongs to the core business of cultural institutions like museums, libraries and archives. Too often insider thefts are not part of risk assessments. It is a problem one prefers not to think about. It is not true that protection against insider theft means distrusting staff. Contrary. Protection against insider theft protects the working environment and those working in the museum, library of archive.

In the Army Museum we have been able to observe not only the destruction of a fascinating and very rare collection, but also the destruction of working relationships. Now, almost three years after these thefts were discovered there still are a lot of negative emotions and there still is distrust.

People blame one another for not noticing the thefts. Some still support the imprisoned curator and regard him as the victim of an imperfect organization. Others feel a lot of aggression against this curator.

It was a very good decision of the general director to make a display of ruined books for staff only. Some museum workers have looked at this display for a very long time in total silence. Others stood there crying.

Worst of all is that for many years to come museum staff will be confronted with damaged books. If something is stolen it will be out of sight and possibly forgotten. These damaged books will always be there to remember a curator who was able to steal uncontrolled for many years.

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And what happened to Mr Polman? December 2003 Mr Polman was convicted to 26 months imprisonment and as additional condition he was convicted not to work as a museum curator for six years. His neighbor was convicted to 60 days social labor and appealed. This case is still pending.
It was not only until May this year that this book dealer and fence was convicted to 150 hours penal labor.

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The Museum Security Network disseminates news on security and safety issues and cultural property protection through two mailing lists: the Museum Security Network mailing list and the Cultural Property Protection Net mailing list. These mailing lists are a free service for cultural heritage managers world wide. Over 2000 members from 90 countries receive several times a week information over incidents with and the protection of cultural heritage. Via following web-address one can subscribe to these: http://www.museum-security.org Also the archives are accessible on this web-address.

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