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Thieves foil high-tech security at Kunsthal Rotterdam

Seven works were stolen as unmanned overnight protection fails

The surprising revelation after the theft of seven pictures from the Kunsthal Rotterdam is the fact that no security guards were on duty at night. Instead the gallery relies on physical barriers and alarms. These proved ineffective on 16 October, when it suffered one of the most serious robberies in recent years. Questions have been asked about the art gallery’s security system and whether it really is “state of the art”, as claimed by its director, Emily Ansenk.

The seven stolen works are worth up to €50m (though their value has not been officially revealed). Despite an intensive police operation, as we went to press none of the works had been recovered.

Thieves broke in at 3.15am through a rear door. Police have released grainy images of at least two intruders and are investigating whether this door had been locked properly. Alarms sounded, but it took five minutes for security guards and the police to arrive. The thieves had made their getaway by car with the seven pictures in two minutes. The works, from the lower-level main gallery, were all fairly small, which made them reasonably easy to transport.

The theft was from an exhibition “Avant-Gardes”, with 150 works from the Triton Foundation, which was set up by the Rotterdam shipping investor Willem Cordia (who died last year) and his wife Marijke.

The Kunsthal, one of the Netherland’s major venues for temporary exhibitions, is housed in a Rem Koolhaas-designed building, which opened 20 years ago. In front of the gallery there is a dual-carriageway, where there are few pedestrians at night. Behind is a small park, which the gallery shares with the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum.

Although the theft appears to be a professional job, three of the items they took are works on paper: two pastels of London scenes by Monet, and Picasso’s pastel, ink and coloured-pencil Head of a Harlequin, 1971. These are vulnerable to water and light damage, so will be complicated to look after. This is bad news for the thieves, but it also means that there is less chance of recovering them undamaged.

One of the paintings has been stolen before: the self-portrait by Meyer de Haan, around 1889-91, was seized at New York’s John F Kennedy airport in 1992 and recovered a few months later.

Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed, 2002, had been in the show, “Lucian Freud Portraits”, at London’s National Portrait Gallery last spring. It might have been in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where the Freud show travelled after London, but it was wanted for the Rotterdam show instead. The final two losses were Gauguin’s Woman Before an Open Window, 1888, and Matisse’s Reading Woman in White and Yellow, 1919.

Although there has been press speculation that the pictures may have been stolen to order for a private collector, this is unlikely. The sheer range of the works means the most likely scenario is that the thieves will try to use them as “currency” in the underworld, where they will be worth a tiny fraction of their market value.

The Kunsthal takes out commercial insurance for loans. The insurer and Triton had accepted the gallery’s security arrangements. The insurers are now likely to offer a reward. Meanwhile, the police have been trawling CCTV footage of the gallery’s interior for evidence of the thieves reconnoitering the building. The gallery has said that its electronic door locking system has been modified since the robbery. “Avant-Gardes” is due to close on 20 January 2013.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Thieves foil high-tech security'