Learning lessons from £57m museum thefts

  • Many museums may be reviewing their security following the high-profile theft of £57m worth of artefacts from across the UK over a period of six months
  • Zurich helped secure the recovery of a £750,000 medieval jug stolen from one of our customers
  • Find out more about our extensive expertise in museum security and major and complex losses – and how we can help you to be prepared

The jailing of 14 members of a criminal gang responsible for the theft of up to £57m-worth of artefacts has been a wake-up call for museums across the country.

Items including Chinese jade and rhino horns were stolen in a series of raids from properties including Norwich Castle and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

There have been a number of other significant thefts from museums across the UK and Europe in recent years, leading to calls from security experts for museums to do more to protect themselves.

We look at what museums can do and how we can help.

We are always willing to consider new ideas of how to help our customers combat and reduce crime, and to keep the nation’s treasures safe.”
Alan Ely, Senior Risk Analyst, Zurich

Museum thefts an “epidemic”

From late-night break-ins to walk-in thefts, museums are increasingly being targeted by both opportunist criminals and organised gangs.

Recent trends have seen thieves targeting animal horns and oriental artefacts such as jade. However, Zurich has also been involved in reviewing the security of items such as stamps, coins and medals.

Paul Redington, Senior Claims Adjuster in Zurich’s Major Loss Team, says: “Unfortunately, claims relating to antiquities are on the increase. Claims experience shows that those perpetrating these thefts are often involved in other crimes, and the money generated is ploughed into other illicit activity.”

Redington says thieves often view museums as a “soft touch”, with walk-in thefts all too common. He also warns that many items are stolen to order and are rarely recovered.

“We are keen to help customers fight against this epidemic by working with them on risk awareness and prevention, learning from experiences such as the Wenlok Jug theft (see boxout) to better protect these important antiquities.”

Safe but accessible

Striking a balance between ensuring historic items are kept secure, while remaining accessible to the public, can mean careful consideration of the location of any items that are likely to be attractive to thieves.

Paul Feltham, a Zurich Senior Risk Analyst, explains: “It is understandable that museums want to display their most prized and valuable exhibits in prominent locations where visitors can view them.

“However, in the case of the Wenlok Jug, while the exhibit was put on display in a secure display cabinet, this was located in the main entrance lobby with only an automatic sliding door and external perimeter gate between the exhibit and the adjacent footpath.

“It is therefore important that museums initially consider the location of the exhibit and then build layers of security protection around it.”

Lessons learned

Following the Wenlok Jug theft, we worked with our customer, Luton Borough Council, to improve security measures.

Potential security measures for museums range from CCTV and alarms systems, to upgraded doors, windows and display cases. Zurich can also provide:

  • A comprehensive safety and security review of museum facilities and archives, including fire/flood risk
  • A free plan-vetting service, offering information on fire risk and security measures at the outset of any new build or refurbishment project

Alan Ely, a Zurich Senior Risk Analyst, says the risks museums face can vary significantly, depending on the size and layout of the buildings and the nature of the exhibits.

“The security at a rural farm museum would be entirely different to a military museum, for example,” he explains.

“When assessing security the building will be considered, along with the type of displays and any storage/workshop arrangements.

“All of these aspects can be considered at the very earliest stage and agreement reached. At the end of the process, the customer will know that we will be happy to accept the insurance covers as we have been involved from day one and have agreed the risk-control measures.”

Helping to protect your treasures

We recently worked with the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk on improved security measures that could be included as part of the refurbishment of one of its museums. This led to the installation of new display cabinets that are harder for thieves to break into.

“It gives you a good feeling to know that a thief could attack a cabinet with a hammer and not be able to break in!” says Ely.

“We are always willing to consider new ideas of how to help our customers combat and reduce crime, and to keep the nation’s treasures safe.”