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High-tech security does not always equal highly successful security for museums

By Sydney Stewart Rose

I will always have a soft spot for movies like Oceans 12 or The Thomas Crowne Affair. These on-screen museum heists were dramatic, high-tech thefts of professional caliber. They often involve bypassing laser fields and pressure sensors or fooling a retinal scan. To museum professionals, an intricate, dramatic, and high-tech burglary like those shown in the movies might seem unrealistic; however, these cinematic and elaborate thefts do happen in museums.


Credit: Oceans Twelve (2004), screenshotted from Youtube:

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) experienced a violent and spectacular robbery on September 4, 1972. Three armed men broke through a skylight on the roof and rappelled down into the museum on a nylon cord. The criminals then held the museum’s security guards at gunpoint and tied them up while they grabbed their loot. This crime is remembered as the largest art theft in Canadian history. The criminals took jewellery, figurines and 18 paintings by renowned artists like Rembrandt, Delacroix, Millet and Rubens. Just the Rembrandt landscape alone is valued at approximately $1 million. Only one of the 55 stolen pieces has been recovered (Bonnie Celled, 2010). Quite frankly, the whole scenario sounds like a scene straight from a movie.

While these types of robberies are rare, they are still possible. In the Museum Studies program specifically, we as students tend to take our dedication to the protection of heritage for granted. Of course we want to protect heritage objects! We focus on conservation and preventative preservation and assume that these objects are going to be safe and protected in our museums and/or archives. However, museums are still very much at risk from theft, even if they are not usually as dramatic or cinematic as those shown in Oceans 12. While high-tech heists like the one at the MMFA are quite rare, low-tech crimes are actually more common and are often successful (Keller, 1994).

While a museum might have some sophisticated security options, these high-tech security features are not always effective against low-tech crimes. In some cases, alarms may sound but they might not bring help in time or are considered a glitch, such as in the case of the theft of Cellini’s Saliera or Munch’s The Scream (Nairne, 2011). In both of these cases, alarms were triggered but the alarm was not taken seriously. Additionally, even high-tech alarms are not foolproof, as evinced by an incident at the British Museum in 2008. In this case, a political activist placed surgical masks on a group of Terracotta Warriors that were on display. The Terracotta Warriors were protected using a sophisticated alarm system which used software to draw a barrier around the statues and would sound an alert if this barrier were breached. Despite this high-tech security system, the activist managed to convey a message through writing on the surgical masks. Eventually, a guard was alerted by a museum visitor (“Art Museums,” 2016).

ssr-iguana1-bCredit: Daily Mail, from

In Canada specifically, there have been many successful low-tech museum crimes. Some burglars use disguises such as in the case of notorious Canadian thief John Mark Tillmann. In one theft, Tillmann and an accomplice disguised themselves as maintenance workers and carried tools into Nova Scotia’s legislative library where they removed a painting without inciting any suspicion. Tillmann himself described the heist as “nothing high-tech” (Hutchins, 2014). At our own University of Toronto, three valuable paintings were stolen by being cut right out of their frames (Declerq, 2015).

While Hollywood will continue to paint museum crime as a glitzy affair, the reality is much uglier and simpler. The increase in technologically-advanced security options has been extremely beneficial in many ways for the museum world, but it is not the most effective in every situation. The head of security for England’s Tate galleries/museums, Dennis Ahern, advocates for “an integrated approach, combining high-tech with low-tech.” He says:

“I use a range of options for different artworks, tailoring security measures to the exhibits they protect. Some tricks work better with works on walls, others with traditional sculpture, and others still with modern sculpture which can take an almost infinite variety of forms. Flexibility is key, avoiding universal solutions in favor of taking the time to design the best security for each individual object … I feel you should always start with nuts and bolts. By this I mean literally, physically anchoring works to immovable objects, such as walls or fixed plinths” (Charney, 2014, par. 5).

This flexibility is crucial for smaller cultural institutions like historic houses or churches, as well as for idiosyncratic heritage or art. Individually customized security features depending on the type of object are crucial, as well as security features that are not visible to hostile surveillance. Noah Charney, the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art describes a creative way of hanging paintings:

“[It’s] a variation on sliding chain lock. Instead of a straight groove into which the chain lock fits, the grooves can easily be custom-built in patterns, like a Z- or an L-shape. This requires sliding the framed painting along the groove in the correct pattern (an L-shape, for instance), in order for it to be released and come away from the wall. By hanging paintings within any one gallery with a variety of different-shaped sliding locks, you can confound burglars, who usually assume that paintings lift straight off the wall or are fixed with screws. Works screwed into place should use non-standard screws that require a special tool to release, and cannot be quickly removed by hand” (Charney 2014, par. 13).

Charney also suggests that perhaps museum professionals should look to the film character Kevin McCallister for inspiration (2014). While this might sound silly, Charney is right that there may be something for museum professionals to learn from the Home Alone star. Further research to determine whether or not booby traps made of marbles are effective in combating museum theft has not yet been conducted.


Art Museums: High-Tech Doesn’t Always Mean High-Security.  (2016, Nov 18).  PlugIn Magazine. Retrieved from

Charney, N. (2014, December 20) “Home Alone’s” secret lesson: How to foil an art heist. Salon. Retrieved from

Czegledi , B. (2010). Crimes Against Art: International Art and Cultural Heritage Law. Toronto: Carswell.

Declerq, K. (2015, February 13) Three ‘valuable’ paintings stolen from University of Toronto campus. The Star. Retrieved from

Hutchins, A. (2014, April 26). ‘He’s turned into one of Canada’s most infamous antique thieves’.  Maclean’s. Retrieved from

Keller, S. (1994). Museum Security: The Art of Alarms. Retrieved from

Nairne, S. (2011) Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners. London: Reaktion Books.

Further Reading and External Links:


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