Look out, art thieves: museums are fighting back

New organisation set up after high-profile thefts will let galleries share information instantly

Should criminals attempt to lift a valuable Chinese artefact from a museum display case, or scrawl over a priceless painting, their photograph now could be with the police and 800 cultural institutions in 20 minutes.

A new national organisation has been set up to allow museums and galleries to share their experiences of criminal behaviour with the police and each other, as they look to beef up security in the wake of ongoing threats to their collections.

A spate of high-profile thefts and vandalised work has left cultural institutions across the UK “on edge”, according to Vernon Rapley, the driving force behind the National Museum Security Group (NMSG), which has a reach of 800 institutions.

The group met for the first time on Tuesday in London. Representatives from about 70 institutions based around the country discussed threats facing galleries, museums, libraries and archaeological sites – and what they could do to protect themselves.

Mr Rapley, the head of security and services at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, described the group as a “self-circulating co-operative”, adding: “If the police authorities wanted to contact everyone in the museum security business in the UK they could do it at the touch of a button.”

The idea builds upon the cultural network which was put in place in anticipation of the Olympics last year. With the help of a software company called Facewatch, the NMSG has developed a website where arts organisations can report crimes to the police, share photographs of suspects, upload CCTV and share intelligence.

“As far as I’m aware we’re the only group in the world, certainly in the cultural sector, that can do that. We can have a theft in the morning and within 20 minutes we can have the image at 800 museums in the UK,” added Mr Rapley, who joined the V&A in 2010 from Scotland Yard, where he was head of the art and antiques squad.

The V&A is behind the initiative and has pledged to back it for three years, but hopes more cultural institutions will contribute as they feel the benefits. The London Museum Security Group, a similar body set up in 2006 which Mr Rapley worked on, was a contributing factor to art crime falling 80 per cent in the following two years.

Galleries and museums are on high alert after the recent vandalism of a painting by Mark Rothko in Tate Modern, as well as the heist of seven paintings, including works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, taken from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.

Mr Rapley said: “Can we do a great deal? Yes. We can circulate information about that person and the method. Unfortunately crimes like vandalism are almost impossible to stop. But at least we’re aware of it.”

The inaugural meeting of the NMSG included presentations by V&A director Martin Roth and his counterpart at the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne, as well as by representatives of the Tate and the British Museum.