The Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
By Travis Andersen Globe Staff May 20, 2015
Police are investigating the disappearance of two works of art worth more than $600,000, including a print of a Rembrandt self-portrait, that went missing last month from the Boston Public Library’s flagship branch in Copley Square, authorities said Tuesday.
A report from the Boston Police Department’s Anti-Corruption Unit states that officers learned in April that two prints, the one by Rembrandt and an Adam and Eve etching by Albrecht Dürer, were missing.
The Dürer piece was valued at over $600,000, and the Rembrandt was worth between $20,000 and $30,000, according to police and library officials.
Library officials learned of the missing prints on April 8 and police were alerted April 29.
Asked about the delay in reporting the matter to police, a library spokeswoman, Melina Schuler, wrote in an e-mail that staff “conducted an initial review and search of likely locations the prints might have been misfiled before turning the matter over to police.”
A police spokesman said the anti-corruption unit typically investigates suspected criminal wrongdoing by city workers. The spokesman declined to say whether a library employee was suspected of stealing the prints, however.
In a statement, the library system’s president, Amy Ryan, said officials had “recently discovered that an engraving by Albrecht Dürer and an etching by Rembrandt are missing from the Boston Public Library’s print collection. It is our hope that these two significant pieces have simply been misfiled. The curators and department staff are currently conducting a detailed search of the collection, and we are working with the Boston Police Department to determine if there is the possibility of criminal activity,” she said.
The library is “undertaking an updated inventory of the more than 200,000 prints and drawings that make up the print collection,’’ and that it will also “conduct an independent analysis of security protocols,” she continued.
She added that “while strict procedures for viewing items in the collection are in place, it is always a balance to fulfill our obligation to make collections open to the public to study and enjoy, while preserving them and keeping them secure.”
“The collections of the Print Department, with more than 200,000 prints and drawings, are stored in designated secure areas of the Central Library at Copley Square,’’ Schuler said. “The missing prints were not on display.’’
One library employee said Tuesday that workers keep a close eye on what goes in and out of the rare book section. “You have to sit at the restricted tables to review books,” he said. “You couldn’t just walk out with anything.”
Another worker said she was not surprised to learn of the disappearance of the artworks, since “anything can happen, it’s a public space. Maybe there wasn’t enough security that time.”
Both workers declined to be named because they did not have permission to speak publicly on the matter.
According to library officials, the Dürer etching was engraved in 1504 and is approximately 8 inches by 11 inches in size. The Rembrandt self-portrait was produced in 1634 and is roughly 5 inches by 6 inches, officials said.
Dürer was a painter, printmaker, and theorist from Nuremberg who lived from 1471 to 1528, according to the website www.albrecht-durer.org.
“His watercolours mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium,” the website states.
Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669 and his iconic paintings include “The Syndics of the Cloth Guild,” “Bathsheba,” and “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph,” according to the website www.rembrandtpainting.net.
The library owns 30 Rembrandt prints and 105 prints by Dürer, and the works are part of the library’s “small but interesting collection of Old Master prints and drawings,” according to its website.
Councilor Joshua Zakim, who lives near the library, said he was disturbed to learn that the artwork had gone missing.
He said any disappearance “of city property I would take seriously, never mind priceless pieces of art. I’m glad to hear that the [Police Department] is investigating.”
The disappearance of the artwork comes 25 years after thieves stole $500 million worth of masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Those paintings have never been recovered.
“It sounds like, certainly, a very serious matter,” Zakim said of the disappearance of the library artworks. “I want to make sure that I can do whatever I can in the community . . . to make sure we get to the bottom of it.”
Paul Hendry, a former trafficker of stolen art who is based in the United Kingdom, wrote in an e-mail that “most likely there was an opportunity and it was taken, by someone like a worker working inside the print area, but if indeed there has been a distinct lack of accounting then there might be more than just these two prints gone.”
Libraries face challenge to balance public access, securityhttps://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2015/05/20/artwork-public-display-poses-unique-security-problems/mlUT4h7EcgAwTMhAn6f8RK/story.html
Barry Landau brought cupcakes before he palmed documents from the Maryland Historical Society. Daniel Spiegelman used a dumbwaiter shaft to gain access to Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Zachary Scranton used a variation on the classic bait-and-switch to pilfer a rare book from Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center library.
And Daniel Lorello, who pocketed valuable historical documents from the New York State Archives, had perhaps the ultimate advantage: He worked there.
Their methods may have varied, but these thieves’ aims were similar: They were after maps, rare books, manuscripts, and memorabilia — the precious but often poorly guarded items that are housed in many of the country’s libraries, rare-book collections, and archives.
And while police continue to investigate how artworks by Dürer and Rembrandt went missing from the Boston Public Library — and the possibility it was an inside job — the works’ absence points to a seemingly intractable problem as archivists and librarians try to secure their collections, while also leaving them open to public study.
Perhaps most difficult to prevent are thefts by the employees themselves, as illustrated in the Lorello case. The longtime employee at the New York State Archives was sentenced to prison after admitting that he stole hundreds of documents valued at tens of thousands of dollars from the state’s collections. His scheme, which went on for years, was discovered only after a history buff saw an item Lorello had listed on eBay.
“It’s almost impossible to prevent insider theft. You have to trust someone,” said Travis McDade, curator of law rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law. “You have guys that have unlimited access, and have what they consider a good reason to steal.” Their reasons, he explained, can range from mounting debt, to a desire to study an object more closely or preserve it at home, to mere greed.
Striking a balance between access and security is “the conundrum that all are facing,” said Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, who has written extensively on archival security. “Custodians have the responsibility of taking care of these materials . . . but, at the same time, they also have the responsibility of providing access to them in a safe and secure manner both to protect the items and to enhance research. It is a balancing act.”
While art theft usually grabs the headlines, theft of archival materials — everything from historical letters and maps to individual pages of books — is in many ways more insidious and harder to track. Whereas a stolen painting is a one-of-a-kind object that often leaves a blank spot on the wall, archival materials can be missing for years before someone notices they are gone.
“Libraries are good victims, because they won’t be discovered missing until someone wants to see the book or the archival document,” said McDade. “This allows the thief time to sell it and maybe it will change hands two or three more times before it’s discovered missing.”
But even when an object’s absence is discovered, it can take months to determine whether the item was stolen or simply misplaced — as still could be the case at the Boston Public Library. Such uncertainty makes many libraries hesitant to report a theft.
“Libraries used to not report these things at all,” said McDade. “They didn’t want potential donors to think they were a sieve, so they’d keep these things from the press and the authorities, and try to understand what happened in-house.”
McDade, who authored a book about Spiegelman’s dumbwaiter scheme, added that archival materials present a particularly easy target. Many of the thieves are themselves archival experts: longtime researchers who inevitably become chummy with librarians, causing staffers to become less vigilant.
“That’s why it’s hard to detect, because they’re from the population of people who go to archives,” McDade said. “You go to these locations and you spend days doing research, so you develop a relationship with them. Nine out of ten you don’t have to worry about, but then there’s that tenth.”
That was certainly the case with Barry Landau, the self-proclaimed presidential historian whom a judge sentenced in 2012 to seven years in prison for theft of historical materials estimated to be worth more than $1 million. Landau, a collector of presidential memorabilia who also admitted to having sold some of the documents, was not found out until an attentive library staffer saw Landau’s accomplice conceal a document and try to walk out.
“We can prevent the Barry Landaus with a little more assiduous defense and vigilance,” McDade said. He added that part of what makes archival materials such an attractive target is that, in addition to many libraries’ often-lax security standards, the objects themselves occupy a sort of historical and economic sweet spot. Unlike a painting, which is unique, there are often several copies of archival maps and documents. What is more, they are expensive enough to make it worth the thief’s while, but not so expensive as to attract attention.
“It gives them an almost limitless market,” he said. “Before the Internet, if you stole something you needed a reliable fence, or to find someone who doesn’t care about provenance. With the Internet all that risk goes away. You just put it online, where provenance is not as important as it is in a gallery or an antiquarian bookstore.”
Recently, many libraries have instituted best-practices standards in an attempt to secure their archives, with some going so far as installing surveillance cameras, monitoring what clothes people can wear in the reading room, and even weighing objects on scales when researchers check out. But these measures only go so far, and many experts say the most effective defense against theft is vigilant staff members who check identification, control how many objects are lent out, and have clear sightlines to the reading room.
“The best defense is a good offense,” said Daniel Hammer, deputy director of the historic New Orleans Collection and the senior cochairman of the security round table of the Society of American Archivists. “We create a research environment that’s very interactive with the staff, so at no time should there be someone accessing the material who isn’t in a relationship with a librarian.”
Following such measures might have saved Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center library from losing two rare books in 2008.
According to an affidavit, Zachary Scranton did not have identification when he asked to see the so-called Maxwell Code, a rare tome thought to be the first printed in Ohio. Instead of his ID, librarians held Scranton’s backpack as he looked at the book, which he stole while librarians were not looking.
When the library staff finally checked the bag, they found it stuffed with paper towels.
“So they gave him a $100,000 book, and he gave them a bag of paper towels,” said McDade. “You need to have basic protocols in place.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.
Disappearance of BPL art may be an inside job
Employee placed on administrative leave; FBI aiding inquiryBoston police are investigating whether a Boston Public Library employee stole two art prints valued at more than $600,000 from the central branch in a theft that went undetected for as long as a year and raises concerns more artwork may be missing, authorities said Wednesday.
“We’re looking at the possibility of it being an inside job,” Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans told reporters Wednesday, as authorities revealed that the FBI is assisting in the investigation.
One employee has been placed on paid administrative leave, said a library spokeswoman, who provided no further details.
Asked if any employees had been identified as suspects, Evans said: “I think we’re looking at some. . . . We’re looking at a few people inside who might have access to that particular area.”
The commissioner said he was informed that the prints may have been missing for up to a year.
One of the prints, an Adam and Eve engraving by Albrecht Dürer, is valued at over $600,000; the other, an etching of a Rembrandt self-portrait, is worth $20,000 to $30,000.
Evans said police were alerted a few weeks ago and immediately launched an investigation.
Library spokeswoman Melina Schuler told the Globe the library does not have images of the prints.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was alarmed that the theft went undetected for so long and that library officials delayed notifying police.
He said it was also troubling that the library does not have images of the missing prints.
“We can’t have valuable treasures of the city of Boston disappearing,” Walsh said during a brief telephone interview Wednesday. “We need to catalog what we have and make sure we are keeping an eye on them. Prints can’t just walk out the door.”
Walsh called for a review of library security and said he would meet next week with the chairman of the library’s board of trustees and the library’s president, who is on a trip outside the country.
The mayor said he was unaware of other missing items.
“But certainly I have concerns,” he said.
The library president, Amy Ryan, said in a statement Wednesday that the library in Copley Square is working closely with police on the investigation and conducting an independent security review and an item-by-item audit of its print collection, which has more than 200,000 pieces.
“It is important that all of the treasures of our collection can be made available to the public now and in the future, and that must be balanced with ensuring their security,” Ryan said.
Schuler, the library spokeswoman, offered more details about the sequence of events. She said that when library workers discovered the Dürer missing April 8, they launched a search in locations where the print may have been misfiled.
On April 15, the staff discovered the Rembrandt self-portrait also was missing and notified the police commissioner and the mayor, she said. A police report was filed April 29, and the Boston Police Anti-Corruption Unit launched an investigation.
Jeffrey B. Rudman, chairman of the library’s board of trustees, said in a statement that the trustees have “endless confidence in President Ryan.”
Rudman said that Ryan notified police “when she first knew exactly what artwork was missing,” and that the trustees appreciated the efforts of Ryan and her staff “both in their cooperation with the police and in doing all that they can to maximize the likelihood that we will recover this art.”
Recently, the library enlisted an independent security firm, KCMS Safety and Security Solutions, to work with its staff to assess security systems in the print department and associated collections and to make recommendations for upgrades, Schuler said.
The artwork was stored in a print room that is closed to the public. Patrons who want to view items must complete a card with personal information.
Then, a staff member — roughly 10 to 20 people on staff are authorized to do this — retrieves the items from the print room, which is accessible only via staff elevators.
Paul Crenshaw, an associate professor and chair of Providence College’s art history department, said Dürer, a 16th-century German artist, was the first major artist who dedicated himself to print making. The “Adam and Eve’’ print, he said, is among the best-known of his works.
The Rembrandt self-portrait is one of many done by the artist and far less valuable.
As for why someone chose those two prints from the library’s collection, which includes 30 Rembrandts and 105 by Dürer, Crenshaw said, “It probably tells you that someone knew what they were looking for and took something particular that they wanted.”
Anthony Amore, director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and author of two books on art thefts, said: “Thefts happen at libraries all the time. Most people are unaware that many public libraries have exceptional art collections.”
The Gardner Museum was the site of the biggest art heist in history. The 1990 theft remains under investigation by the FBI, the US attorney’s office, and Amore.
The items stolen from the Boston Public Library would be difficult to sell because it would be easy to determine that they were stolen, Amore said.
“My message to the thieves would be: ‘You have not stolen a picture. You have stolen problems,’ ” Amore said. “The best thing would be to get them back to the library and hope it ends there.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jan Ransom can be reached at email@example.com.