- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

The robbery of the well-known “The Scream” and “Madonna” paintings by Edvard Munch in Oslo this week reverberated in cities like Washington, rich with museums and galleries housing valuable artifacts and works of art.

Important works of art in the United States are overwhelmingly insured with all-risk policies that include theft, said Christiane Fischer, chief executive of Axa Art Insurance in the United States. And to keep that insurance premium at a reasonable level, galleries have to maintain top-notch security. European galleries and museums, most of which are public, do not usually insure works of art against theft, unless they are borrowed from other galleries or are being sent to exhibitions abroad. “The Scream” and “Madonna” paintings were not insured.

Ms. Fischer said U.S. galleries revamped security after the devastating 1990 heist from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In that robbery, two thieves posing as policemen tied up security guards and stole paintings worth more than $300 million. The stolen works, including a Manet, a Vermeer, five Degases and three Rembrandts, have not yet been recovered. “That sent a shockwave through the community,” she said.

What “The Scream” robbery appears to reflect is that an artwork’s security is determined as much by the law enforcement readiness and legal practices of the country, as the security measures of the gallery itself. After “The Scream” was ripped off its wall, visitors said it took police 15 minutes to arrive at the scene. Another version of “The Scream,” also by Mr. Munch, had been stolen in Oslo in 1994 from the National Gallery. The thieves were caught but served just four years. In the United States, a federal law provides a 10-year jail term for theft of art worth more than $100,000 or over one century old.

“The Scream” would be worth around $90 million in a regular auction, but according to Tony Russell, head of Art Recovery Ltd., which works with victims and insurers of stolen art and antiques, there still is no real market for recognizable stolen works of art in the medium-term. Some thieves may try to place pieces years later, after a statute of limitations in a country has run out. Even then, finding a buyer is risky.

There are still 287 Picassos, 243 Joan Miros and 210 Marc Chagalls and other works still missing. They represent thefts against the community. The security of America’s works of art will depend on crime levels in general and the honesty of art dealers.

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