Museum Thefts In The Netherlands Criminology Essay

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Chapter 5


In the work conducted by Peek "Theft in museums in the Netherlands - facts and figures to support collection risk management" (Peek, 2011) the interviewed experts shared the opinion that a museum in the Netherlands is likely to experience an average of one or two theft incidents per year. In comparison to what is announced in the media, this percentage seems rather high (Peek, 2011, 8).

According to the experts' opinion stated above, it can be expected that a total of 1000 to 2000 thefts occur per year. [1] This study examines seventeen museum theft incidents that happened in a period of twelve years and were announced in the media, either solely on a local or on local and international level. In comparison to the expected number of thefts this number seems probably extremely low. However, as it was also stated above, only a small number of thefts is announced in the media (Peek, 2011, 8).

The conclusions from this small scale research which are based on past incidents will be compared to the risk scenarios and the predictions of the experts as described in the research conducted by Peek (2011). On one hand, this is a very small percentage in comparison to the total incidents of thefts and the result might not give a representative view on the thefts that happen in the Netherlands. On the other hand, this comparison might give some indications on under what circumstances a theft is more likely to occur and it can therefore constitute the first step towards a more systematic approach of the museum thefts in the Netherlands.

Probability of museum thefts according to different factors

Type of theft: There are eight different types of theft identified in the research. Burglary is described as a "forced entry by outsiders into a building for the purpose of committing an offence". Unauthorized access, during which access to the museum or intrusion is not acquired by force. Shut-in occurs when the perpetrators enter the building during opening hours and manage to stay inside until after closure. Internal thefts, which refer to a situation in which the perpetrators are people who have access to the collections, such as museum staff or volunteers. [2] Opportunistic theft is committed by individuals who grab the opportunity to steal and object and is an unpremeditated act. Armed robbery is "a premeditated act that involves violence and fear". Hit and run is "a bold entry and action" followed by a quick escape in order to avoid getting caught. Silently planned refers to a theft which happens during opening hours and requires careful planning and several preparatory visits. The probability that these types of thefts might occur can be defined as "high" which means 1 or 2 thefts per museum per year, "medium", which is translated to one incident per two or five years and "low" if it refers to less than one incident every five years. Internal thefts along with opportunistic thefts are considered to be the most probable. Burglary is of medium probability, while shut-in and armed robbery are among the least likely to occur (Peek, 2011, 2).

Types of objects at risk: The research identifies different categories of stolen objects. Such as old paintings, precious material, weapons, coins, books and archives. For the purposes of this study the categories will be slightly modified as it will be shown later. In general the experts assume that the higher the monetary value of an object is the most likely is it that a premeditated theft will occur. It is also stated that opportunistic thieves tend to steal small objects, books or archival material, while in focused and planned thefts the objects that are being targeted are those with high financial value. Last but not least, precious materials and coins are considered to be one of the primary targets since they can be easily melted and sold as raw material (Peek, 2011, 3).

Location: There are several types of locations indicated in Peek's research. Namely, these are exhibition spaces, storage spaces, public areas with collections, conservation rooms/offices/laboratories. Moreover, also during the transport or at a loading dock thefts can occur. According to the experts, the most likely combinations regarding type of theft and location are internal theft from storage, armed robbery during transport and burglary in exhibition (ibid).

Time of day: Thefts during the weekend are the most likely to occur according to the experts and especially in the case of burglary the possibility to occur during a weekend night is considered more likely than during weekday night. On the other hand, opportunistic thefts are more possible to occur during opening hours.

Motive: In this work, different types of motives were examined. However, since most of the museum thefts described in this study were not solved, it is not possible to make a comparison between the possible and the actual motives. [3] 

Recovery: Last but not least, in Peek's research the probability of recovery was examined. According to the interviewed, the probability of recovery was described as moderate, although it seems that this also depends on the kind of the stolen objects and on whether the objects were insured or not. It is believed that insured objects are more possible to be recovered since insurance companies sometimes pay tip money in order to retrieve information for the theft or because the thieves might ask for ransom. (Old) Paintings and works on paper are also more possible to be recovered since they are usually better registered than books and archival materials. On the other hand, precious materials have very low possibility of recovery since they can be melted or transformed.

Comparison between probable factors and data

Type of theft: Burglary occurs more often than any type of theft, with thirteen incidents out of seventeen. There was only one 'hit and run' theft reported, one case of 'armed robbery' and one case of 'shut-in'. Regarding 'internal theft' and 'opportunistic theft' which were regarded by the experts as more likely to occur, there was only one incident of 'internal theft' reported and no incident of 'opportunistic theft'. This does not mean that this type of theft does not actually occur, but it rather means that it goes unreported or maybe even unnoticed. One case of internal theft happened in the Army museum in Delft and it took almost seven years before it was revealed that the curator was stealing material from the library and even paintings. Opportunistic thefts on the other hand might even go unnoticed. An indicative example, also mentioned earlier, is the loss of many netsuke objects that have been stolen from the storage rooms of the ethnology museum in Leiden when the access to the storage rooms was allowed to a lot of people (Intr. 15). [4] 

Figure 4: Type of theft

Types of stolen objects: For the purposes of this research the categories of stolen objects have been slightly modified and are the following: paintings (with no distinction such as old or new), precious materials (which includes precious metals, gems and jewelry. Silverware is also included in this category), books and archives, sculptures and other (which includes objects such as clocks or rhino horns). The categories of coins and weapons have been omitted since no objects of this type have been stolen during these thefts.

In some cases more than one type of objects was stolen during a theft. For example from the Westfries museum both paintings and silverware have been stolen. All of the museum thefts were premeditated and consequently all of the stolen items were of high monetary value, which verifies the opinion of the experts that in premeditated thefts objects of high value are stolen. Most of the stolen items were paintings and the second most popular type of objects seems to be silverware. Although there is only one incident in which bronze statues were stolen from a museum garden, it should be mentioned that in the past few years and also this year an increase in thefts of items made by bronze and other valuable materials occurred (Intr.15). However these items can also be found in outdoor spaces such as squares or parks and also in churches and therefore are not included in the list of museum thefts.

Figure 5: Type of stolen objects

Location: All of the items have been stolen from the exhibition space, with the only significant exception the statues stolen from the Singer Museum in Laren, which were in the garden of the museum. Another exception was the theft of the airplane model from the Deleen Airbase Museum. Also the case of the Army Museum in Delft gives an example of an exception. The items stolen by the curator originated from different rooms in the museum and the only reported armed robber within the past twelve years took place in the exhibition space of the Scheringa Museum.

Time of day: From all the thefts only two happened during the day and only one, which was actually an armed robbery, during the opening hours. All the others happened during the night and most of them, which was according to the experts' expectations, during the weekend. Most of the thefts happened the night from Sunday to Monday, probably because Dutch museums are closed on Monday. More precisely, four thefts happened in the night from Sunday to Monday, one theft in the night from Saturday to Sunday, two on Friday night and two were reported to have happened during the weekend, however the exact day is not announced. Therefore from a total of seventeen thefts nine happened during the weekend. The two thefts that happened during the day were also committed during the weekend.

Figure 6: Time of day

Recovery: From the seventeen museum thefts, only in two cases - which are also the cases that will be discussed in the following chapter - the items have been recovered and in three other cases some but not all of the stolen items have been recovered. This means that the probability of recovery is rather low and not moderate. Of course there is always the probability that some of the items and especially the paintings might resurface in the legal market after a period of twenty years since this is the limitation of art theft in the Netherlands. Regarding the objects made of precious metals, the expectations of experts that the recovery of the stolen items is unlikely were confirmed. An example is the theft from the Singer Museum in Laren, where only one of the seven statues was recovered severely damaged.

Figure 7: Recovery

To sum up, from all types of thefts discussed in this study and reviewed literature, burglary remains the most popular one. Hit and run type of theft does not occur often but might be organized in ways that cannot be predicted even by experts. The Gouda museum theft was organized in such way. The thieves used explosives in order to open the museum door and this is something that was never reported before in the Netherlands (van Pel, n. d.). Additionally, attention should be paid to internal theft which is supposed- and experience shows that it probably is (Tijhuis, 2009, 46) - to be one of the most common types of thefts. However internal theft is among the forms of theft that are most difficult to detect and therefore not many incidents are reported. In regard to the types of stolen objects, paintings are the most popular objects when a burglary happens, although they are difficult to be sold since they are most of the times well registered. In the recent years there is also an alarming increase of thefts of bronze or silver objects due to the high prices of raw materials. In these cases the artifact is not only stolen but is also destroyed in order to be sold as a raw material and therefore is gone forever.

Most of the thefts have taken place in the exhibition place, at night and during the weekend. Besides, in one of the interviews it was mentioned that about "half of all the burglaries take place at higher levels of the building" (Intr. 13). It is indeed true that from the total of twelve burglaries in at least four a ladder was used. Also useful information in order to understand the modus operandi of the criminals is the number of perpetrators. However most of the times this information is either not available for the public or not known; because even if the CCTV shows a certain number of people, it does not prove that there are no other people, either inside the museum or outside, waiting. With regard to the modus operandi it can be argued that the more elaborate a heist is the more probable it is to be associated with experienced and well equipped criminal organizations (Siegel, 2008, 95). Although in the cases of Dutch museum thefts further researched is required, in some cases there are indications of the professionalism of the thieves, such as for example in the Museon theft or the theft from Scheringa Museum, especially if compared with thefts such as those from Singer Museum or even Van Gogh which seem to be rather clumsy and the thieves left a lot of traces behind.

In the sections that follow the cases of the Frans Hals Museum and the Hofje van Aerden thefts will be discussed, because these cases are the only solved cases of museum thefts during the past twelve years in which the artifacts were recovered and the perpetrators have been caught. Therefore, the available empirical data and the information regarding these thefts are more than those available for the other cases.

The Frans Hals Museum

"A window was smashed at the top level of the museum. About half of all museum thefts take place at higher levels of the building." (Intr.13)

The Frans Hals Museum is situated in Haarlem and has the largest collection of paintings by Frans Hals in the world. [5] On exhibition are also works by Hals' predecessors and contemporaries, furniture, ceramics, glass and silver. [6] 

It was 26th of March 2002, Sunday to Monday night when thieves entered the museum smashing a window on the top level and stole five paintings. The robbery was quick and the thieves managed to escape with the five paintings, leaving a sixth one behind. The paintings stolen were The Quack and The Happy Drinker, by Adriaan van Ostade, another canvas, also entitled The Quack, by Jan Steen, The Musicians, by Cornelis Bega, and Drinking Bout, by Cornelis Dusart, whereas one of these paintings was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam("Dutch Paintings Worth £2m Stolen, 2002).

The case of the theft from the Frans Hals Museum is one of the very few cases that the paintings have been recovered and the suspects have been arrested, even though it took six years and an operation with an undercover police officer.

"Most of the time they call the museum or they call a lawyer who is contact with the museum and they say: Listen we are in the possession of a couple of paintings and maybe you want to buy it from us. And most of time the insurance companies and the police and the museum they make a plan to get them back. Sometimes they pay for it and sometimes they catch the perpetrators as well. Depends on what's the story of course." (Intr.6)

In the case of the Frans Hals Museum the people who were in the possession of the paintings made contact in order to ask money for the paintings.

"And then there were the intelligence looking around and at one moment maybe they catch the thieves or the people who have it. And at that moment they had the paintings. …And all the paintings have been recovered." (Intr.6)

According to the interviewed, it is not very likely that those people were the same who committed the theft.

"Well you never know if they are thieves. They had the paintings but they never say that they are the thieves. That's the problem, if you say the thief gave it to me and then you contact the police or the insurance company nobody can prove that you have stolen them. I have only the paintings and I can offer them to the museum. … I don't think they did it, because they were drug criminals." (Intr.6)

However, the motivation of the thieves is not known nor is it known if the initial motivation of the fences was to ask ransom for the paintings. It is also not mentioned in the news or verified from the interviews whether the paintings changed owners or the people who got arrested were the ones who took them from the thieves. In one of the interviews it was mentioned that:

"I think it was head to export it, I heard in United States, to people who loved art and the diamonds …they had the intention to bring them to United states and offer them to people who are not very aware of the fact that the paintings are stolen or maybe they'd like to take it to art fairs to sale it over there… well I think, it was very difficult to take them abroad maybe, because you have to use a boat of course and ship, but I think that at one moment they changed it for money or drugs and that came to other people and the other people they had it just laying on the ceiling and waiting , maybe we can use it sometime, exchange it for getting lower penalty ." (Intr.6)

The paintings were said to be in possession of drug criminals and according to one of the informants this is the only known case which shows a connection between drugs and stolen art:

"It was recovered in 2008 and some criminals were convicted and what I know is that those criminals were known to the police, it was officially announced in the papers too and eh, they were previously also working in drugs. So that's the only connection I know about criminals doing drugs and also doing other, other crimes." (Intr. 16)

According to information announced in the news, the people who got arrested were a father and son and both residents of Den Bosch, age 23 and 69 respectively and a well known lawyer ("Lawyer Arthur van der Biezen Arrested", 2008). This is an example of the relational ties between actors. In this case the most obvious relational ties are the biological relationship between the two actors and behavioral interaction among the three actors (McIllwain, 1999, 305),

In an article that was posted in the Museum Security Network it was also mentioned that the undercover police officer has paid 1.000.000 euro ransom during the operation for the recovery of the paintings. When the people got arrested only 100,000euro has been found in the house of the father and 95,000euro in the chalet of his son. All the three people have been arrested with the accusation of possessing the stolen paintings and laundering the money that they got from the ransom ('Hoger beroep schilderijenzaak,' 2011).

The Hofje van Aerden Museum

"Stolen Art Alert: Armed robbery, Leerdam, the Netherlands

Gunman steals Isaksz van Ruysdael and Frans Hals from Museum het hofje van Aerden, Leerdam." (IFAR report, 1988) [7] 

The Hofje van Mevrouw Van Aerden Museum is situated in Leerdam and is an 18th century building holding a unique collection of 17th century paintings.

In 1988, two paintings of Ruysdael and Frans Hals have been stolen from the museum and according to news articles have been recovered three years later after a ransom was paid by the Dutch government. [8] Twenty three years later the same paintings have been stolen again on May 27th 2011, during the night from Thursday to Friday. [9] 

"Burglars managed to get into the garden of the Hofje, smashed a window with a sledge hammer. A woman living in the Hofje heard the noise, and even saw the burglars. She alarmed police. Burglars managed to get away by climbing down to the river behind the museum garden." (Intr.13)

The paintings stolen where the "Two laughing boys" by Frans Hals and a Wooded Landscape by Jacob van Ruysdael and were recovered a few months later after the police received a tip that led to the people who possessed the paintings. Although the paintings have been recovered and arrests have been made, the case is still under investigation. Therefore the police was up to date not allowed to give any further information beyond that the case is connected with another theft of paintings from a private property.

"Six of his paintings were stolen from this collection. And during the investigation we had some information related to the theft from the Museum in Leerdam. So things are connected. Be sure about that. But how they are connected we don't know." (Intr.2)

According to an interviewed expert, this theft is actually linked with the gang that operates in the Netherlands and which was presented in the section of the fences. The interviewed said that there was an informant who made contact on behalf of those who possessed the paintings stolen from this private residence, in order to ask for ransom. The police trapped the phone of the informant and in one of the conversations they heard that the informant was also involved in the Leerdam case. It was this information that lead to the recovery of the paintings from the Hofje van Aerden museum.

"He is also friend of (the boss of the gang), that man. German man, he lives in Amsterdam and he does alone stolen paintings. … He is an architect." (Intr. 10)

Once more, it is not known - or at least not revealed in the news or in the interviews - whether the people who got arrested were the thieves or middlemen and which their motivation for the museum theft was.

However, this case shows that thefts from private houses and museums can be connected and, according to the interviewed expert, it also shows that this gang actually operates in the Netherlands and is involved in cases of stolen art both from museums and from private properties

Both of the cases described above are typical, in the sense that in both cases it was a burglary that happened during the night, one took place during the weekend, and the stolen items were paintings from the exhibition space. The fact that in both cases the recovered items were paintings might be also used to support experts' claims that the probability of recovering paintings is high especially in comparison to the recovery of precious materials, which are also very likely to be stolen but highly unlikely to be recovered.

Modus operandi????


In the first part of this chapter a general overview of the art crime network in the Netherlands, was provided as an introduction to the empirical study of museum thefts discussed in the second half of this chapter. The five main groups (criminal and non-criminal) which constitute the art crime network are the offenders, the buyers, the victims, the police and the insurance companies. Several other groups of actors do exist, and have been briefly presented, but their role was not thoroughly examined. Each of these five groups can be divided in different sub-groups some of which have been identified in the previous sections. Although a number of relational ties among the actors of the network were identified and there are indications on how these groups interact with each other, further research is needed. The same goes for the identification of the features that can characterize these groups.

In the case study of museum thefts the same groups of actors have been identified along with a number of activities that these actors perform. Furthermore, the comparison between the data gathered during this study and Peek's research provided an insight on how the experts' opinion reflects reality. However, further research and more access to the available empirical data are also needed in this case, in order to formulate a clearer and more concrete view of the network. Last but not least, the majority of the data was based on the perceptions of interviewed and therefore it mostly provides a view of the network as perceived by the experts. That is not to say that the whole research is based on perceptions and not on facts, however, as it was also mentioned in chapter 1, it should be read with a critical eyeprobably also from the storage space. There are no other reported cases, where thefts occurred during transport or objects were stolen from the storage spaces. Furthermore, the comparison between the data gathered during this study and Peek's research provided an insight on how the experts' opinion reflects reality. However, further research and more access to the available empirical data are also needed in this case, in order to formulate a clearer and more concrete view of the network. Last but not least, the majority of the data was based on the perceptions of interviewed and therefore it mostly provides a view of the network as perceived by the experts. That is not to say that the whole research is based on perceptions and not on facts, however, as it was also mentioned in chapter 1, it should be read with a critical eye.