Why Art is so Difficult to Protect


In Taipei recently, a 12-year-old boy innocently stumbled, as 12 year old boys are apt to do. Chances are, the adolescent boy is still getting used to his growing feet, and he awkwardly tripped and reached out to catch himself. Happens every day. Except on this day, the boy was in an art museum, and the object against which he tried to brace himself, with a hand already busied by a beverage, was a 17th century Italian painting said to be by Paolo Porpora. The value of the painting: an estimated $1.5 million.

The challenges of protecting art, whether from fraud, damage, or theft, just seems to get -- in the words of Alice -- curiouser and curiouser, as we now learn that the painting might not actually be what it was purported to be.

As someone who works in the field of art protection, I watched the video a few dozen times, looking for reasons why the incident occurred. And aside from the fact that I don't understand why visitors are allowed to carry soft drinks in the "Faces of Leonardo" exhibition, it seems that the main reason the accident happened was because accidents happen.

The simple fact of the matter is that each year tens of millions of people visit museums around the world and come within close proximity to hundreds of thousands of valuable works of art. Occasionally, miscreants and the mentally disturbed vandalize art work. In the 1970s, an unstable Hungarian named Laszlo Toth jumped over a railing at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and took a hammer to one of the world's greatest artist accomplishments: Michaelangelo's Pieta, causing it severe damage and leading to the Vatican's decision to place the masterpiece behind bulletproof glass. The glass between the visitor and the artwork creates a distance that has lessened the experience of viewing it for countless millions. Unconscionable and inexplicable attacks such as this have happened more frequently than the public realizes.

Then, of course, there's this.

It is incredibly difficult to protect against intentional criminal acts against art in museums. And the reason is that museums exist for the very purpose of allowing people extraordinary access to the world's great paintings, sculptures, objects, and anything else created for aesthetics and reaction.

The National Gallery in Washington has four breathtaking Vermeers in its collection not to hide them in a storage room, but to display them and allow visitors to get very close (but, as the guard will tell you, not too close) to appreciate the genius of the artist. Simply put, when one's goal is to allow access to delicate pricelessness, one's ability to protect it is diminished. In fact, the level of access is directly proportionate to the difficulty of protection. Thus is the challenge of museum security.

But what is even more difficult to protect against is the accident. The tripping 12 year old; Steve Wynn putting an elbow through one of his own masterpieces; the elderly visitor picking up a delicate bowl and dropping it -- these are the things that are nearly impossible to avoid, because these are the things that make us human.