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MUSEUM SECURITY ISSUE IN A NEW FRAME

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LONDON -- Museums and their insurers should do more to investigate all museum staff in order to prevent thefts such as that which occurred in Rome recently, a leading art security expert says.

Although all three Impressionist paintings stolen on May 19 (BI, June 1) from Italy's National Gallery of Modern Art were recovered, Italian police said the thieves allegedly had been aided by one of the museum's female security guards.

James Emson, managing director of the London-based Art Loss Register, a database of stolen artworks, said he believes the incident shows that museums and their insurers must take greater care to ensure that their security measures extend not just to the buildings housing works of art but also to all the people employed in them.

"If you have any responsibility, particularly where there's more money hanging on the wall than in most bank vaults, then you have to take that responsibility seriously," said Mr. Emson. He was referring to the value of the three paintings stolen in Rome -- two Van Goghs and a Cezanne. Art experts said the paintings were worth a total of at least $30 million, while at the same time acknowledging that their fame made them impossible to sell openly.

While Mr. Emson believes most museums generally install efficient security systems for their buildings and probably do ask the pertinent security questions of job applicants, he also maintains that they "are a bit naive" when it comes to the human element.

"They should be doing so much more," such as checking databases for outstanding loans or debts of potential employees, he said.

He added that museums also could enlist the services of private security vetting firms, which will check such things as the qualifications, credit ratings and criminal records of those being considered for employment.

One such company is Network International, a London-based subsidiary of Hambros Group.

Jeremy Phipps, a managing director of the company, said one of the security services his company offers is a pre-employment screening program that checks the records of people prior to their being recruited. While Network International is employed in this capacity mainly by financial services companies, the service is equally suited to museums, he said.

However, Mr. Phipps said Network International has no museums among its clients. He was not aware of any museums using the services of his company's competitors, either.

While he said it is difficult to give an average figure of what it would cost to vet potential employees for a museum, as charges would depend on such things as how far back he was instructed to check or whether the potential employee was foreign, Mr. Phipps said Network International's charges generally range from L50 to L800 ($82 to $1,309). He maintains it is a worthwhile price to pay if it helps prevent art thefts.

Italian police recovered the three stolen paintings at apartments in Rome and Turin. They arrested eight people, including the museum security guard.

Because the stolen paintings were in a state-run museum, they were not commercially insured but were covered by government indemnity.