We Don’t Know How Much Art Has Gone Missing From Museums

Should museums tell the public about missing art?

Two pieces of gold and silver-encrusted Italian Renaissance armor, which had been stolen from the Louvre in 1983 and found this year in a family’s private collection in France, were discovered the way stolen art often is: An expert crosschecked the items against an online database of lost and stolen art.

But museums have at times withheld information about thefts, fearing that revealing security weaknesses could make other institutions less likely to loan them art or that it could encourage other thefts, according to current and former museum officials. Art security experts say the failure to report thefts, particularly involving items stolen from storage, has prevented museums from recovering items.

Philippe Malgouyres, the curator of heritage art at the Louvre, said that when he started working in museums decades ago, he heard stories of thefts and disappearances that had not been reported.

“Our purpose is to preserve objects for the future and for the public,” Mr. Malgouyres said. “When we fail to do that somehow, when something is stolen, it’s a very painful experience, which led some museums in the past, especially, not even to go to the police sometimes, because they were feeling so embarrassed about it.”

that recovered two J.M.W. Turner paintings in 2002, eight years after they had been stolen while on loan to a museum in Germany.

On Sunday, the newspaper El País reported that the National Library of Spain had discovered in 2014 that one of its holdings, a 17th-century book by Galileo, had been replaced by a copy but did not report it to the police until four years later, when researchers had requested the work.

stole 27 pieces from the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, the police kept quiet about the theft and, as a result, recovered most of the pieces, she said.

“Sometimes they’re very quiet, not so talkative or splashy,” Ms. Albertson said of the division of Italian police that focuses on art crime. “That discretion has been quite helpful.”

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The Louvre Recovers Armor Pieces Stolen Nearly 40 Years Ago

After sunset on May 31, 1983, and before dawn the next morning, a showcase at the Louvre was broken into and two pieces of 16th-century Italian armor were stolen in one of the most mysterious heists in the museum’s history.

Nearly 40 years later, the two items — a ceremonial helmet and a breastplate — were identified in the private collection of a family in Bordeaux, in western France. The police are investigating how the items ended up in the family’s estate, and who was responsible for the theft.

“The Louvre is delighted that these two pieces of Renaissance armor have been found thanks to the work of investigators,” the museum said in a statement. It added that what happened on the night of May 31, 1983, remained “an enigma,” with few details known to the general public.

The museum did not respond to requests for more information about the circumstances around the theft, the identity of the family who had the armor, or what prompted the family to have their private art collection appraised.

the French newspaper Le Figaro reported.

The two items, thought to have been made in Milan in the second half of the 16th century, will be put on display as soon as the museum reopens, the Louvre statement said. They were bequeathed to the Louvre, one of the most visited museums in the world, by the Rothschild family in 1922.

The museum said in its statement that the 1983 theft had “deeply troubled all the staff at the time.”

There have been several high-profiles heists at the Louvre. Probably the most famous occurred during the summer of 1911, when a museum employee stole the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. The employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested two years later while trying to sell the painting in Florence, Italy, and the painting was returned to the museum.

“I had only to choose an opportune moment and a mere twist would put the picture in my hands,” he said in court in 1913. He described snatching it from the wall and slipping it under his blouse. “It was all done in a few seconds.” His motivation was to return the painting to his native Italy, he said.

The thieves climbed up a metal scaffolding and smashed windows on the second floor, breaking into the museum. And in 1990, a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, “Portrait of a Seated Woman,” was cut from its frame and stolen from a third-floor gallery.

Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime, said that it was not unusual for museum curators to keep quiet about thefts. “Museum curators thought that if they admitted a theft, they would be exposing a security flaw or inspiring other people to take action,” Dr. Thompson said. “But researchers in the last couple of decades have been saying, ‘Look, guys, you’re not going to get anything back if people don’t know it’s missing.’ So museums are rather reluctantly publicizing thefts more, which has resulted in a lot more recovery of things.”

One risk to publicizing thefts is that if thieves learn the authorities are on to them, they are more likely to destroy, deconstruct or melt stolen works to avoid detection, Dr. Thompson said. A small percentage of stolen art is found, although studies show that about 40 percent of art stolen from showcases in museums is returned, as those works tend to be more recognizable and their theft is usually noticed right away. When art is stolen from storage, it can take museum officials years to notice items are missing.

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