Third theft at V&A forces closure of 38 rooms

In the latest incident, eight Italian Renaissance plaquettes worth £500,000 were taken



The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has temporarily closed 38 rooms for security reasons, following a third theft in three months. A further eight rooms are shut for other building improvements and seven more have been decanted of objects. In a few other rooms vulnerable cases have also been emptied, although displays which are secure are still on view. This means that 53 rooms, or over a third of the entire museum, is currently closed. The closures are described as “temporary”, but some could last months.

The Exhibition Road entrance has been shut and security checks are taking place at the main entrance on Cromwell Road and the tunnel entrance from the tube station. “All bags belonging to members of staff and visitors are now being searched on the way in and out of the museum,” according to a statement. Bag searches are also taking place at the staff entrances.

The third theft took place in the late afternoon on 29 December. In an audacious move, a glass case was opened in one of the Italian Renaissance rooms on the ground level adjacent to the central garden. A thief forced open the wood and glass display case, using a tool or key, and a pocketful of small but important objects was taken.

Eight bronze plaquettes of the 15th and 16th centuries were stolen. Each is about 10cm high and depicts a religious scene, such as the Holy Family or the Crucifixion.

The most important plaquettes are two by Riccio, of the Entombment, together worth £250,000. Three are from the Donatello workshop and three others by Moderno. These lesser objects vary in value from £30,000 to £45,000 each, making the total haul worth nearly £500,000 ($950,000). The museum is appealing to the international art trade to watch out for the stolen items.

The room where the theft took place would eventually have been cleared because of the planned new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The thieves seem to have been well informed as to which objects in vulnerable cases were both portable and valuable and there has been concern that the thieves may have made use of inside knowledge.

The technique employed by the thieves on 29 December was similar to that used in the two earlier thefts, when nine jades were stolen on 5 October and 15 Meissen figures on 24 November, in both instances from the Ceramics Galleries on the upper floor (The Art Newspaper, No. 152, November 2004, p.14, No. 154, January 2005, p.13). All three incidents took place during opening hours and glass cases were opened.

Commenting on the incident V&A director Mark Jones said: “This appears to have been a well-planned professional theft. The V&A is in the middle of a major programme to upgrade security and replace old display cases with new ones throughout the museum and many galleries have been completed. This theft underlines the need to proceed as rapidly as possible.”

It was not until 6 January, a week after the theft, that the museum announced the closure of four sets of rooms which had vulnerable cases: the Jones Galleries with European decorative art; Textiles and Tapestries; and 20th-century Furniture. Costume jewellery was also shut for security reasons. The Ceramics Galleries was closed at the end of November, following the second theft.

Extra warders are now on duty, and they will have considerably fewer rooms to patrol. In the meantime “a full programme of CCTV and alarms are being installed throughout the museum with all possible speed”.

So far, funds for the additional security have come from the V&A’s regular budget, which presumably will mean cuts in other departments. Secure glass cases and improved CCTV and alarms will be expensive capital costs, and extra warding will increase recurrent expenditure. Mr Jones says, “we are talking to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about how the process of upgrading [of glass cases] can be accelerated”

A similar theft also took place at the British Museum on 29 October, when 15 pieces of Chinese jewellery were taken. There was a further theft at the Science Museum on 9 December, when a valuable crystal and document were taken. These were recovered on 15 December and a man has been charged.