Theft is an oft-romanticised crime in folklore and popular culture – think Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Maui stealing fiery fingernails from Mahuika, or Bonnie and Clyde. We have a fascination with stories about people who beat the system, ‘democratise’ income gaps, or simply break the rules. Favoured tales generally justify their criminality by serving popular justice rather than the law of the time.
Unlike the steal-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor motif, thefts from museums are widely looked down upon. Museums are safe houses for communities’ cultural heritage, where objects and ideas can be kept for the future to be used by everyone for research, enjoyment, and education. Suffice to say stealing from the public for private gain is not an honourable occupation! So what does that have to do with this museum?
My summer research project has had me fossicking deep into the Archives, rummaging around interesting snippets on how the museum has evolved over the past 150 years. I have also been teasing out a few juicy details regarding historical robberies!
Notable museum snatchings
Internationally, the most famous museum thefts generally involve art, perhaps because of its high value and easy portability. The largest theft of private property ever was in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. While the city celebrated St Patricks Day two men disguised as Boston police officers pilfered 13 precious works worth around $500 million. The men gained entry under the ruse of investigating a disturbance inside. Once in the museum they tied up the security guards and proceeded to make their way through the various galleries, cutting paintings out of frames, swiping drawings and filching objects. The stolen works have not yet been recovered and the museum has hung several empty frames as homage to the missing works.
Museum thefts in popular culture
In contemporary literature art theft is also a huge drawcard for readers. This Goodreads list alone mentions 160 examples of the genre, including fiction and non-fiction tomes.
There’s even a virtual museum devoted to exhibiting solely stolen artworks, as a way to return the swiped pieces to their intended context of gallery walls. The Museum of Stolen Art also serves as a place where viewers can reflect on how vulnerable cultural artefacts can be – particularly in times of conflict.
Blockbuster movies are another medium exploring high-stakes museum burglaries. National Treasure (2004) stars the much-maligned Nicolas Cage as Ben Gates, who spends a big portion of screen time stealing and losing the Declaration of Independence from the US National Archives. This is all done in the name of stopping the bad guys from stealing it first, and while eventually the object is returned to the Archives, it’s put in an awful lot of danger in the meantime. Somehow I don’t think Ben Gates’ quote “We’re more like treasure protectors” quite rings true.
A much smaller scale
Te Papa’s earliest predecessor, the Colonial Museum (1865), was first designed as a reference resource illustrating the natural history and geological diversity of New Zealand. As such some valuable items were on display. In 1895 an elderly chap by the name of Charles Robinson was charged with purloining gold and gold-bearing quartz after breaking open a case containing the specimens. He was tracked down by detectives after a few days… still with the quartz and gold held in his coat pockets.
The Colonial Museum was renamed the Dominion Museum in 1907 and the collections had increased significantly in size and variety by the 1930’s. The museum had also well-outgrown its initial building and was only a few years away from moving to the Buckle Street site in 1936. Resources were tight and the staff were stretched, so when a gold watch and a glass of rough pearls were found to be missing from a case it was undoubtedly very stressful. Thankfully the items were recovered – the prolific thief was found after a night watchman caught him in the midst of another burglary, this time helping himself at a local jewellery store. The ‘perp’ was apprehended on the roof of the shop while trying to hide behind a light. When it became obvious he couldn’t escape, the robber gave himself up and stated “All right. I’m the fellow you’re looking for. I won’t make a fuss.”
In October 1980, from the newly named National Museum, the absence of six carved Japanese ivory netsuke figures was a very worrying discovery. The display case was surreptitiously broken into so no damage was visible and the items taken were only a few components of a larger display of similar objects. Other carvings had been artfully rearranged so no gaps were obvious – the burglars had been very careful to make their crime less noticeable. Five netsuke were returned anonymously by post and police eventually apprehended a self-employed art dealer named Richard Wallace who had the sixth carving in his possession. He was duly convicted but on a receiving charge only, and had to serve 100 hours community service. The Probation Service rang the Museum to see if they would consider Wallace doing his 100 hours with them – understandably, and quite possibly indignantly, they declined!
Safety in numbers
Thankfully Museum security internationally (including New Zealand) has advanced significantly since the 1994 theft from the National Gallery in Oslo of an edition of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, ‘The Scream’. The cheeky burglars left a note behind after the heist, which read: “Thanks for such poor security.”
Highly developed surveillance technologies are used today to help keep important objects safe. There are international committees and networks of organisations dedicated to improving the protection of storage and display areas for heritage organisations. While this means theft of museum items now happens far less frequently, the Internet also makes a much easier job of tracking down items which do get stolen. However, even with superior security systems in place, popular interest in the subject has meant an explosion in fictitious tales of museums being pilfered, rendered popular through song, screen and page – can you think of any other examples?
Riah King-Wall, Summer Scholar