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Van Gogh heist shows why collectors can’t ignore security even during a pandemic

The smash-and-grab of a Van Gogh oil painting highlights concerns of having art & other high-value items in unattended locations as entire regions lock down.

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New York/London: The break-in lasted just minutes.

At 3 a.m. on Monday, a thief — or thieves — forced open the glass doors of the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands and headed straight for its prize exhibit: a Van Gogh oil painting. By the time police arrived, the burglars were gone, along with the artwork.

The smash-and-grab of “Spring Garden, the Parsonage Garden in Nuenen in Spring” highlights the concerns of having art and other high-value items in unattended locations as entire regions lock down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Singer Laren had been closed since March 12 as part of the country’s ban on large gatherings.

In New York, where museums and galleries have shuttered and art-lined apartments and townhouses stand empty, some are taking added precautions. Jordan Arnold, head of art risk advisory services at K2 Intelligence FIN, said he’s had numerous conversations recently with clients about security concerns. Lawyer Thomas Danziger said one client, a jeweler, has removed everything from the store in case of theft. Others have put their artwork into storage.

While overall crime in the city fell in March compared with a year earlier, commercial and residential burglaries rose 26% to 942, according to a New York City Police report. The sometimes elaborate security systems put in place could soon be put to the test.

Such systems include high-res cameras inside and outside, and in some cases a collapsible metal barrier at the entrance. Installers, following requirements of insurance companies, can also put motion sensors and fire detectors in every room.

Large windows and glass doors can be coated with security film. If a burglar tries to smash it, it won’t just shatter, but rather turn into a spider web of shards, making the entry more complex.

‘Buys Time’

“That’s the kind of a thing that buys time,” Arnold said. “First responders can get there in time to catch the perpetrator.”

Many art works have sensors on the back that trigger an alarm if they’re moved, said Carmine Pizzo, president of Intelli-Tec Security Services.

Pizzo’s conversations with clients these past few weeks have been just to confirm the security systems are on and being monitored. Erin Bast, a senior underwriter at art insurer Huntington T. Block, has also encouraged homeowners to notify their local police precinct that the premises are empty. Galleries should remove valuable paintings from the areas where they can be easily seen from the outside to more discrete locations, she added.

Fritz Dietl, who operates art storage facilities in New York, New Jersey and Delaware, said that facility managers and guards walk through the buildings every day.

“Art storage is more like a fortress,” he said. “It’s not like you look through the window and ‘Hey, there’s a Van Gogh.’ Inside, the artworks are packed. So a thief wouldn’t even know what to take.”

Groceries, Ammunition

Fancy homes are also increasingly strongholds.

Spencer Means, a broker with real estate company Compass, said he currently has listings for a $12 million apartment and an $8 million townhouse in Manhattan.

“The townhouse owner lives in London, and he can see the activity on his phone,” Means said. “Apartments can be vulnerable if they are sitting empty too long.”

It’s not just fine art. Clients of K2 are also seeing increasing demand for their security and crisis management services, such as cybersecurity for executives working from home.

About a month ago, K2 Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Kroll got a call from a customer asking whether he should stock up on supplies, including groceries and ammunition. “I realized it was the tip of the iceberg,” said Kroll, who offers to find security guards for clients.

‘Upside Down’

Some collectors say coronavirus concerns take priority over fear of theft.

At the Rubell family’s private museum in Miami, which has been closed since March, the premises are manned around the clock, Mera Rubell said.

“Security is not the issue,” she said. “The issue is that the world is upside down. I am concerned about the health of my people.”

For now, fears of public disorder seem far-fetched to many.

Photos of boarded-up stores in SoHo are disconcerting, but broker Means said he feels safe on the Upper West Side. “I’m on West End Avenue, I look out my window and see people walking on the street.”

Gloves, Masks

Nor has the Dutch heist sparked worries at Levy Gorvy. The gallery, which occupies a former bank building on the Upper East Side, is keeping all the art on the walls. Those interested in private sales can still make appointments and see the works in viewing rooms, with precautions such as gloves and masks.

“The gallery is secured,” said Emilio Steinberger, a senior partner. “We have solid wood doors. It’s got security alarms. We have someone who comes in every day just to make sure that everything is fine.”

After all, he notes, “people stole Van Goghs before this virus.”

Also read: Why a New York-based smuggler dumped $20 million worth of Indian art


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