Where's My Stuff? – Theft at the Museum

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Although Cindi and I do most of the posting on this blog, our boss, Jeanne, occasionally has something she wants to share, but she has opted out of having an account here, which is why I am posting on her behalf.  So enjoy this message from Jeanne, aka Boss Lady!

On May 22nd I had the pleasure (alright, I’ll admit it, I was scared to death) of speaking at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference in Baltimore about a subject that is near, but not so dear, to my heart.  The session, titled “Mysterious Disappearances: Where’s my Stuff?” focused on the problem of internal theft in museums and libraries.  The session’s speakers included several noted experts: Miles Harvey, author of the book The Island of Lost Maps; Gregory J. Smith, Executive Vice President at Berkley Asset Protection, an expert in loss control and risk assessment in the fine art and jewelry fields; and Robert Wittman, who served as one of the FBI’s top investigators in cases involving art theft and art fraud who also helped form the FBI’s rapid response Art Crime Team. And me!

Speaking at the AAM Conference in Baltimore, MD
Speaking at the AAM Conference in Baltimore, MD

Our insurance underwriter arranged the session and asked me to participate because our institution was the victim of a massive internal theft perpetrated by our archivist, Lester F. Weber.  Unlike many institutions, which tend to hide instances of theft in order to protect their reputation and ensure that future donations are not affected, we took the exact opposite stance.   We actively pursued the prosecution of our thief and did not worry about the consequences; we simply believed that it was our responsibility to stop the thief and prevent another institution from being victimized.

It’s time for museums and libraries to recognize that internal theft is not something that can be prevented—only deterred (staff familiar with institutional policies and procedures can always find ways to circumvent them)–and suffering a theft is not necessarily indicative of a non-professional institution.  It might just be the work of a particularly nefarious thief.  In our case it was the result of placing too much power in the hands of a single person.  After being hired, Mr. Weber established new policies and procedures; rearranged the storage area and the collections; and instituted a new numbering system.  The combination of these acts essentially dismantled the system of checks and balances that would have uncovered his activities and enabled him to systematically remove at least 6,456 items over the course of nearly six years from the Museum’s collection.

Once our theft was revealed, we received no guidance on how to conduct an investigation or coordinate the work.  Even the Federal authorities couldn’t seem to offer any advice beyond “find incontrovertible proof”.  As we stumbled through our investigation we developed a clear understanding of how our thief facilitated and perpetrated the thefts; a new set of policies and procedures that we hope will deter future thefts; and a working knowledge of how to conduct an investigation and work with the authorities.

Hating all of this hard-won knowledge to go to waste, I have made it my mission to get this information out to as many organizations as possible.  I spoke at the Virginia Association of Museum’s conference several years ago and I went to the AAM conference armed with a streamlined presentation and a large handout full of information.  Despite my nervousness, the session appears to have been very well received and we have provided copies of the handout to nearly a hundred institutions across the country (You can click AAM handout to get a copy of the handout for yourself). With luck, the information will help provide these institutions with an arsenal of tools they can use to deter theft and some really practical advice if they happen to find themselves in a similar situation.

People waiting to get the handout
People waiting to get the handout

Our next task is to work on getting the stolen materials returned.  While we can’t document every item well enough to seek its return, thanks to the Federal authorities we have the contact information for several thousand buyers and a listing of what was purchased.  At this point, I should give two thumbs up to the two buyers who have voluntarily returned the items they purchased—James Daniel Scott and Bjorn Larsson you guys ROCK!  And to those individuals who are fully aware they are holding stolen items but are steadfastly refusing to return them I give you big, wet slobbery THWWFFFFFFTTT!

3 thoughts on “Where's My Stuff? – Theft at the Museum”

  1. As a former curator at Mariners’ I was both interested in the story and very impressed with the response to the theft. We experienced theft at the Connecticut Historical Society, at the hands of the now infamous Barry Landau, and recently recovered most of our material, thanks to honest dealers and the work of the National Archives’ theft recovery team. As the Head of Research and Collections I have been involved in discussions concerning collections security and will check out the handout. Good work, Jeanne!

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