… and the curator did it
My presentation will be about the problem of insider-theft in cultural institutions. Characteristics of thieves and thefts will be given, and a major case of insider art theft will be dealt with. The photograph you are seeing now is of E. Forbes Smiley III, a renowned dealer of antiquarian prints. Mr. Smiley was not a staff member of the libraries he victimized, but he does have some of the characteristics of insider thieves. Like all insider thieves Mr. Smiley was the least suspected to be slicing prints out of valuable books, and like all insider thieves he is very consistent in his claim to be innocent. Yet, he seems to be responsible for hundreds of thousands dollars of damages. He committed his crimes over a period of many years. Like most insider thieves Mr. Smiley was socially very well respected.
In April 2003 preparations began for a book history event at the Army Museum in Delft. The museum has a large 500,000-volume library on the history of warfare, armies and weaponry; in addition, a large collection of antiquarian illustrated books, many of which contain topographical prints. The museum also has, or rather had, 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 originally are from the Royal archives and the library of our first king, William I, who reigned 1815-39. From a cultural historical perspective, one can imagine that there is quite a difference between a 17th -century atlas from a private collection and the same atlas from the collection of William I.
During the preparations for the book event one of the museums’ highlights, a book about Napoleon’s travels and battles in Italy, was selected to show to the participants. This book had also been 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.
The discovery of this terrible damage to a unique book 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. This was his big mistake, for Polman himself presented the 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 entrusted to them.
Internal thieves appear to have common characteristics. It goes without saying that not all thieves have all characteristics, but there appear to be some common denominators. The thieves:– Most of the time internal thieves have a long working relationship with the institution, varying from some 10 to over 30 years.– They are very well trusted and in independent positions – this is true of curators and librarians. Very often they are responsible for the acquisition of new items for the collection, 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, 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 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 was already considering a change in career to become social worker. The French librarian was a well-known benefactor of an international children’s charity.– They are the least expected people to be thieves of the collection for which they work.– They even participate very actively in solving the thefts; both in Delft and Paris, 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 is often laid to blame and peers are accused of stealing as well. The lawyer of the Delft curator defended his client by stating that removing items from the library and museum was almost daily practice, and that his client now seemed to receive the blame for the museum’s chaotic organisation.
Insider theft is also a case of swindling. The thieves are never 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 misled as a daily routine. In the Army Museum the director was convinced that his stealing curator was the jewel in the crown of his organisation. 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 young girlfriend was frustrated to read in the newspapers that he was 36 and not 33 as he had told her! A substantial part of his criminal earnings was invested in several hair implant treatments. His behaviour during the interview I 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. While in custody Alexander Polman asked for a one day leave to apply for a job. It appeared he wanted to apply for a position as museum director!
– Insider theft may continue for many years; the Army Museum curator had been stealing from the collection for at least seven years, removing maybe over two thousands prints, hundreds of books and most likely some 20 paintings. For three years until his arrest he had been responsible for accepting donations. The museum used to receive some 40 donations of items for the collection per year. During his time at the museum there were 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 – the Army Museum curator had sold a small museum’s-worth of items to his neighbour. In Copenhagen some 75 wooden boxes with stolen books were removed from the house of a thieving librarian. – It may take years before insider theft is discovered. The thefts in Copenhagen were not discovered until after the death of the librarian, when his wife and son tried to sell stolen items at auction.– One never expects insider theft 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 trust my staff, and we cannot check their actions because 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 those carried out 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 had 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, 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. A few Recent Cases
On the left you see Sherrie Shaw, former conservator of the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. Her thieving was identified after a Navy “Black Widow” Cross (shown left on top), a Purple Heart medal (left below) and a mercury astronaut space boot were offered for sale on the internet. The Black Widow Cross is a particularly rare medal and raised the suspicion of a military memorabilia collector. After contacting the museum the inventories were checked and these items appeared to be missing. August 2005 Shaw was found guilty and faces up to 25 years in prison. Shaw keeps insisting that the medals belonged to her own collection and that she wanted to sell them because she felt her collection was a conflict of interest with her job. Shaw worked at the museum for over 10 years.
Last year it was made public that the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States is missing hundreds of historic documents and artefacts 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 who was consequently linked to the theft of more than 100 other documents. Although visiting researchers are not allowed to bring coats or briefcases into the reading rooms, Harner managed to hide the documents in his clothing. In May of this year he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. The thefts by archivist Shawn. P. Aubitz, who worked at the National Archives subdivision in Philadelphia for 16 years, were also discovered after an important document appeared for sale online. His thefts included dozens of presidential pardons and hundreds of autographed photographs of US astronauts. Aubitz was sentenced to 21 months in prison and a fine of $73,000. Some of the pardons and a ‘1863 warrant’ to seize the estate of Robert E. Lee, which he had stolen, 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, including an awareness campaign that urges the public, employees and researchers to monitor auctions and internet sales and report suspicious materials to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In December last year the curator of the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauerdale, Florida discovered that artefacts 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 you can see photographs of Johnny Weissmuller, who dominated the swimming Olympics in 1924 and 1928 and is also famous for being Tarzan in the movies. On the left, the man responsible for the thefts 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 he is awaiting trial.
Insider theft is not a new trend. – Already in 1954 the Victoria & Albert Museum was confronted with an employee who 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 this year an assistant curator from Calcutta India was arrested after he broke into the museum and stole a Buddha bust. He was ‘nailed’ on his fingerprints.– January 2005 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 by the Italian architect Piranesi – he had torn the prints out of books from the museum and had put them up for sale at an antiquities dealer. This dealer was sentenced to one and a half years in prison. The Dutch antiquarian book dealer – Meurs from Leiden – who fenced some 1000 prints over a period of sux years was convicted to 150 hours penal labour. Quite a diference.– In September 2005 the former curator of the Danish Museum of Art & Design in Copenhagen was sentenced to prison. He had stolen 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 artefacts and a female friend had arranged for them to be sold at auctions abroad and in antique shops in Denmark.– In August 2005, the Former director of an Antiquities Department of Egypt, Abu Shanab, was sentenced to life imprisonment (25 years). He was found guilty of taking bribes and supplying smugglers with certificates that said genuine antiquities were fakes. Under Egyptian law, only fake antiquities can be exported. – September 2005 the Carabinieri arrested Giuseppe Ghilarducci, the Director of the Archive and Museum of the Cathedral of Lucca. He is charged with receiving and selling stolen property. Two chalices found were stolen in Rome. Also a 15th-century canvas by Giovanni Marracci stolen from the Gello church in Pescaglia. Ghilarducci is granted home arrest and the investigations continue.
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 manuscripts and author of several publications. He was also very active in an international childrens’ organisation. The manuscript, called manuscript number 52, was sold by Garel to a dealer, and Mr Garel himself signed a permit to allow this manuscript to leave France. To make sure that the manuscript would not be recognised 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 yet unknown. 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 recognised by a scholar in Jerusalem, who warned the French national library. This led to the arrest of Garel and his wife who was regarded as accomplice in the theft of at least five valuable manuscripts. Garel’s wife is also an esteemed scholar, specialising in Coptic writings. The present owner of the valuable 13th-century manuscript bought it at Christie’s for $300,000, and is willing to sell it for that price to the National Library. It was known that books and manuscripts had disappeared from the Hebrew collection at the National Library for a few years. A stock-take in 2004 showed 30,000 books and almost 1200 of the most precious documents were missing since the previous major shelf reading in 1947. Last June (2005) Garel appeared in court for the theft of 25 rare manuscripts and 121 pages torn from 14th,15th– and 16th-century books and incunabula. Garel withdrew his initial confession. Now he claims, he is being used as the perfect scapegoat for a massive security breach at the library. A quite common excuse used by insider thieves. In 2004 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 through Christie’s in London and Swann in New York. After he died his wife and son continued selling the stolen items. In total 80 rare manuscripts were put on the market via these auction houses, for the equivalent of $1.5 million. Meanwhile, some 600 additional works were sold through other channels. Even though both his wife and son stated that they were not aware that the books they tried to sell originated from theft, they will be imprisoned. December 2004 a former employee of the National Library of Stockholm committed suicide after having admitted that he stole valuable works from the Stockholm University Library, the National Library of Denmark and the Uppsala University’s Carolina Rediviva library. It is suspected he was working with accomplices to steal the books. The investigations started when library staff noticed that gaps on their shelves corresponded to the listing of books on a website that offered them for sale.An employee of a German auction house was arrested last month (October 2005) in relation to these thefts.
Max Ary, former President of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, is charged with counts ranging from money laundering to theft and sale of artefacts including items received on loan. About a year after Max Ary resigned following 27 years of service, an internal audit showed that more than 100 artefacts were unaccounted for in the Cosmosphere’s collection. Among them 26 items that were on loan from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), which Ary presumably sold, loaned and traded. Also Ary failed to inform NASA of the loss of an Omega mock-up 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 Ary is now (October 2005) also suing the Cosmosphere. Last week he filed a suit claiming the Cosmosphere owes him hundreds of thousands dollars and also holds artefacts that belong to Ary personally. Max Ary’s wife says the former head of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center wound up with museum artifacts in his Oklahoma home because of her mistake. Jan Ary testified Thursday last week (October 2005) that she had packed up and moved the artifacts by accident when the couple moved from Kansas to Oklahoma City in 2002. She said her husband had been shocked to find the artifacts after former astronaut Eugene Cernan told him he was under investigation.
Insider theft in heritage institutions does not always concern collection objects: – A former library employee from the University of Texas at San Antonio was found guilty in March of stealing over $200,000 in fines for overdue or lost materials. This scheme took place over a six-year period. – A former Boston Childrens’ 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 Phoenix City-Russell County Library has admitted to 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.
Next to curators and conservators, often facility workers have unrestricted access to collection storage as well: – October 2005 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, 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. – August 2005 two former employees of a Bridgeton art shipping company pleaded guilty to stealing more than 130 works of art, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Dali, de 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 perpetrators, and tried to verify the ownership via a New York dealer, where he came in contact with the real owners. Slide 16September 2005 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 was missing when a fellow artist asked him for a work he had on display for him and he could not find it. A friend then told him 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 years a total of 20 paintings, glass works and handicraft were stolen. The picture shows the artist with three of the recovered works of art. 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 continue to investigate the extent of the syndicate’s operations and if more art galleries have fallen victim to them.
May 2005 Hendrikus Van Leeuwen appeared in court for the theft of over 2000 objects from the Australian Museum in Sydney. As a pest controller he received unsupervised access to the entire collection of 13 million items. Many of the skins, skeletons and preserved bodies found in raids on Henks property had features in common with the specimens missing from the museum. Some even had the museum tags still attached. Also the house of an accomplice was inspected. Among 56 objects identifiable as museum property that were found there, was a stuffed lion that was first exhibited in the museum in 1911.
The photograph you are seeing now is a portrait of the curator I spoke about earlier from the Army Museum – Alexander Polman – giving a speech after the thefts were discovered at a special museum event. He started his speech with a short 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 only a few weeks later that Mr. Polman was unmasked to be the thief himself. Slide 19In May 2003 I 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 and print room depositories. There was an electronic access control system but at the same time staff were also in 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. He also worked many weekends. Later on, after he had been arrested, it appeared that he started his looting of prints out of books and out of the print collection when he was alone early in the morning. Before his colleagues arrived he would roll the prints and put them in the trunk of his car, which was parked in 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, and to make sure that security staff perform random checks on leaving cars. Mr Polman was the only person responsible for the print collection and was given a job digitizing the registration of the collection. He stole some 2000 prints from the collection and sold almost all of those to the same antiquarian book dealer. We will never know exactly how many prints were stolen, for Polman also made the old handwritten registration disappear, of which 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 its own collection. After Polman was arrested, buying stolen prints from the antiquarian fence appeared to be another one of Polman’s mistakes. One member of staff who had been 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. Slide 20In June 2003 it still was not known 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 had also disappeared from the museum. I offered to interview each and every staff member with access to the library’s and print room depositories. In three days 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 I asked to speak to him 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’s house 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 I went to search the house. 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 the 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, and so he was arrested. The same morning Mr. Polman was also arrested. A truck was ordered and 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 by the museum. The neighbor appeared to have a Porsche sports car in his garage. This car was sold 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 the retired colonel. After long negotiations these paintings returned to the museum, but not until the museum paid compensation to this good faith buyer. Slide 21Polman’s neighbour was part of a group of military personnel and collectors of military artefacts. This group visited very expensive clubs in London 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. During three or four days visits they spent over
$5000,00 dollars each. Polman is not on this photograph, but his neighbour 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 them finally were forced to leave the museum. Slide 22 to 31 Photos Slide 32For some six years Polman had been selling books and prints to the same antiquarian book dealer, Meurs in Leiden The Netherlands. Estimates are that this man bought over 1000 prints. He knew Polman was working as a curator at the Army Museum because Polman bought 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 book dealer was arrested, but released after one day. We were very much convinced that numerous prints in his two-storey shop belonged to the Army Museum. He seemed to suffer from loss of memory, saying 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 with the fencing book dealer we were allowed to return to his 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. DNA Marking Recovering of possibly stolen prints does not automatically mean that the museum will get them back. For each and every print proof must be given that it belongs to the museum. Modern day DNA marking techniques really would have been of help to deliver this proof. Slide 33Lessons learned. We all know that security belongs to the core business of cultural institutions like museums, libraries and archives. Too often insider theft is 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 or 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 organisation. Others feel a lot of aggression against him. A very good decision was made by the general director – a display of ruined books has been made available 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, for many years to come, the 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. Rather than upgrade security measures towards employees after insider thefts are discovered, it is far better to take action BEFORE thefts occur. Slide 34And what happened to Mr Polman? In December 2003 Mr Polman was sentenced to 26 months imprisonment and as an additional condition he is not allowed to work as a museum curator for six years. Mr. Polman is released from prison and works as a tour guide on Sardinia for the Dutch company Amfibie Treks from Utrecht. Most likely Polman will be confronted with a civil law suit and a multi million claim. So, Polman may feel the consequences of his thefts until his dying day. His neighbor was convicted to 60 days community service and appealed. This case is still pending.< o :p> May this year the book dealer and fence Meurs was convicted to 150 hours penal labour. © Ton Cremers, November email@example.com