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The Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s Pieces Used To Be Ridiculously Easy To Steal
By Mikelle Leow, 10 Sep 2019
Image via Maurizio De Mattei / Shutterstock.com
If you were looking to acquire a masterpiece the unethical way, the best period to do that was perhaps between the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most-visited art institutions in the world, wasn’t as secure as it is now, according to John Barelli, who worked as a security officer at the Met until 2016.
Barelli told the New York Post that “museums were vulnerable” before surveillance technology became more advanced. Further, as institutions wanted more members of the public to gain access to art, exhibits were being “exposed.”
The former chief security officer details how easy it was to swipe artifacts back in the day in his new book, Stealing the Show, where he chronicles six prominent thefts from the museum.
In one notable instance, via The Post, Barelli recounted the 1979 Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit that was so well-received, its opening hours were extended. As the institution could not keep up with the crowd, a visitor found an easy opportunity to uproot a US$150,000 23-pound marble bust of Greek god Hermes from its wooden pedestal, where it rested on for decades.
Image via Matthew Dicker / Shutterstock.com
When the fifth-century statue was taken, it had a heart carved over its left eye. After it was found, there was another heart above its right eye.
The museum could not find any clues regarding the theft, until an anonymous caller dialed up Rockefeller Center five days later, saying, “If you are looking for the head, it is in locker 5514 at Grand Central Station,” Barelli detailed.
The museum theorized that the second heart carving meant the thief gave the bust away as a Valentine’s Day present, but their offer was probably rejected after the recipient found out it was stolen.
Just a year later, two teenagers successfully made off with a 3,000-year-old Ramesses VI gold ring by knocking a pedestal with a wire coat-hanger. The crime was undetected until the duo tried to sell the US$50,000 item to a jeweler for just US$5,000. The jeweler then contacted the Met and attempted to resell the piece at US$80,000. Luckily, the amount was haggled down to just US$25,000.
The thefts slowed down after 2004, when surveillance technology became more sophisticated. Thanks to the Met’s online database, you can now even download its artworks for free—legally.
[via New York Post, images via Shutterstock]
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