Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone" (20th Century Fox)

"Home Alone's" secret lesson: How to foil an art heist

This Christmas classic has something for everyone — including the people trying to stop museum robberies!


Noah Charney
December 21, 2014 2:00AM (UTC)

This Christmas, like every Christmas, millions of televisions will broadcast the exploits of young Kevin McCallister, whom his family forgot in their rush to the airport, to spend the holidays in Paris. "Home Alone" is a Yuletide staple, and I make a point of tuning in every year. But while most will watch "Home Alone" for its heartwarming moments, slapstick comedy and family-as-the-greatest-holiday-gift message, I see in it something else entirely—a master class in low-budget museum security.

I promise, this will all make sense in a moment.

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On Dec. 22, 2000, two cars burst into flames in Stockholm, Sweden. Fearing a terrorist attack, police swarmed toward them, just as three armed burglars, one carrying a submachine gun, entered the National Museum of Sweden. Shouting at museum-goers and guards to get on the floor, the bandits grabbed three paintings, including a Rembrandt, and escaped from the museum in a getaway speedboat that was waiting in the bay behind the museum. When police cars sped to the scene, their tires were damaged by nails and tire spikes scattered in the street in front of the museum, to prevent pursuit.

This is the sort of daring, cinematic, real-life art theft that I study and teach, in order to learn how better to protect museums in the future. I am a professor of art history specializing in the history of art crime, and founder of ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art). For many years I’ve taught courses in art theft, forgery and security, at Yale University, the American University of Rome and on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. In my research, I’ve found that, while most museums throw money at high-tech security features to protect their precious collections, these are often far less effective than the sort of low-tech, do-it-yourself booby traps that Kevin rigs to confound the burglars in "Home Alone."

I collaborate with security directors at leading museums around the world, who likewise feel that a combination of high- and low-tech security measures is the best way to protect an art collection—or any portable, high-value objects, for that matter. Dennis Ahern, head of security for England’s Tate Museums, agrees: “You ideally want to end up with an integrated approach, combining high-tech with low-tech. I use a range of options for different artworks, tailoring security measures to the exhibits they protect. Some tricks work better with works on walls, others with traditional sculpture, and others still with modern sculpture which can take an almost infinite variety of forms. Flexibility is key, avoiding universal solutions in favor of taking the time to design the best security for each individual object … I feel you should always start with nuts and bolts. By this I mean literally, physically anchoring works to immovable objects, such as walls or fixed plinths.” This literal “nuts and bolts” approach, avoiding over-reliance on high-tech gadgetry, is important to circumvent just the sort of security disasters that struck within a two week period, back in 2007, when a pair of high-profile, high-tech security disasters prompted a reevaluation of security theory when it comes to museums.

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In October 2007, drunken vandals broke open a side door of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. They rushed inside, punched a hole in a Monet painting, and rushed out. Alarms went off, and CCTV cameras captured the perpetrators in action, but it all happened too quickly for anyone to stop them. They were later identified based on the surveillance footage and arrested, but the damage had been done. That same month, an anti-China activist managed to defeat an elaborate alarm system meant to defend the Chinese Terracotta Warriors, which were on loan for a blockbuster show at the British Museum. In addition to more standard alarms, each sculpture was protected by a “smart camera,” which uses software to draw an imaginary barrier around the video surveillance image of an object, setting off an alarm when that virtual barrier is breached. The activist managed to place surgical masks, covered in anti-China slogans, on several of the Terracotta Warriors. Not only did none of the alarms go off, but museum visitors had to go and find security guards to inform them about what was happening. In March 2008, the same activist was back, hanging placards on several of the statues before being hauled away; this time the alarms did function, but the statement had been made. Had the activist intended to damage, rather than decorate, these sculptures, then he would likely have done so, despite the alarms.

Trustees, curators and often strict loan agreements frequently require a level of financial, and technological, commitment to protect art on display at museums. Art security breaks down into three categories, as described by Dick Drent, security director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum: organizational, constructional and electronic. The electronic component is almost always some type of alarm, and there are enough to choose from to make Catherine Zeta-Jones smile: laser walls, seismic vibration detectors, RFID tags (that set off alarms when they cross a threshold, like those plastic tags on clothes at the Gap), weight-sensitive plates, motion detectors, and much more. The problem is that alarms only serve their function if they summon a timely and suitable response, in the form of guards or police rushing to the scene. If no one gets there in time, then alarms are just very expensive noise makers. In the British Museum case, the elaborate technology failed entirely, while at the Musée d’Orsay, the alarms functioned, but the vandals were in and out so quickly that no one could respond in time. We’ve seen a trend in thefts by organized criminal groups in recent years, which I refer to as “blitz thefts”: armed, masked burglars burst into a museum during open hours, threaten museum-goers and guards, rip art off the walls, and rush out. Alarms go off (most of the time), but average police response time to an alarm in most cities is three to five minutes. So if the criminals get away in under three minutes, then it doesn’t matter that the alarms went off. Such was the case in the 2000 Stockholm museum heist, as well as many others. For alarms to work, thieves must be delayed in fleeing the scene until police can arrive. But it is considered dangerous to try to trap the thieves inside a museum full of visits, as that risks a potential hostage situation. How, then, to defend against thefts in which the expensive alarm systems either fail altogether, or fail to summon a useful response?

Kevin McCallister had the right idea.

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Dennis Ahern continues, “If I were to give one simple and cheap method for protecting objects on a budget, it's high tensile steel fishing line and good screws. If you or your colleagues can easily remove something, so can a thief. It’s that simple.” Ahern, Drent and a number of their colleagues likewise work with their staff to stage mock emergencies, like thefts, to make sure that they are prepared. “We work with our conservators to practice the attempted theft of works and our reaction to it, as close to real time as we can. This helps both parties understand the challenges. Conservators are least likely to damage anything in the process of our trial thefts, and participation helps different factions in the museum feel like a team and sympathize with each other’s duties.”

Before committing a theft, particularly from an institution like a museum, which one expects to be well-protected, criminals engage in what criminologists refer to as “hostile surveillance.” This is a fancy way of saying “casing the joint,” examining a potential crime scene in advance to determine how best to get away with the intended crime. This includes locating CCTV cameras, motion detectors, alarms and locks, and finding exit routes. Criminals assume that museums will have these measures in place, and they should. But an over-reliance on technology and alarms can have disastrous consequences, particularly if vandalism, rather than theft, is the goal of the attack, for, while thieves want to get away, vandals rarely care if they are caught, provided they do some damage.

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As to whether museums over-rely on high-tech measures, Anthony Amore, security director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, says “I am a believer in high-tech security and continue to be impressed by the products that we deploy. There are many other technologies that I think important and worthy of a great deal of reliance. On the other hand, there is a certain danger attached to overlooking the fallibility of technology. For all the great advances in technology, and the exponential improvement in usability, the simple fact of the matter is that technology sometimes fails. Confidence in the operator to be able to respond well and implement contingencies in the event of failure shows the importance human factors play in security. For these reasons, we have implemented a number of strategic redundancies to ensure that no single human or technological failure leaves us vulnerable to criminal activity.”

There must be redundancies in place if technology fails, as well as ways to delay thieves’ escape so that alarms can summon a useful response. Enter Kevin McCallister. Armed with household goods and some odds and ends that anyone can pick up at the local hardware store, an 8-year-old rigs homemade booby traps that manage to thwart the burglars and save the day. Christmas tree ornaments are laid out below windows (much like the tire spikes used by the Stockholm museum thieves), tripwires strung in hallways, a heavy iron strapped into place to whop evildoers on the head, and a blowtorch is set to flambee an intruder when a door is opened. While "Home Alone" puts an emphasis on sadistic comedy—we enjoy watching the bad guys in cartoonish pain—what I call “'Home Alone'-style security," and Dennis Ahern called “nuts and bolts,” is a very real and powerful tool used in top museums around the world, provided they are run by open-minded, outside-the-box security directors.

While the museums that use such tricks prefer not to be named, so as not to give away their methods, we can mention some of the low-tech security measures that are in active use. Kevin spread marbles on the floor, to trip the burglars as they pursued him, and those very marbles feature in an ultra-low-budget form of alarm that is widely used when funds are tight: marbles are wedged between a painting’s frame and the wall against which it rests, so that if the painting is moved, the marbles will drop to the floor with a clatter. High-tensile steel fishing wire ($6 for 100 meters’ worth) is looped through a bracket inside the base of a sculpture, then through the plinth on which the sculpture is displayed. This ties it in place, but it can also be equipped with a vibration alarm (available for about $10 on Amazon) hanging off the wire within the hollow plinth, that goes off when the wire jiggles. Another system for hanging paintings is a variation on sliding chain lock. Instead of a straight groove into which the chain lock fits, the grooves can easily be custom-built in patterns, like a Z- or an L-shape. This requires sliding the framed painting along the groove in the correct pattern (an L-shape, for instance), in order for it to be released and come away from the wall. By hanging paintings within any one gallery with a variety of different-shaped sliding locks, you can confound burglars, who usually assume that paintings lift straight off the wall or are fixed with screws. Works screwed into place should use non-standard screws that require a special tool to release, and cannot be quickly removed by hand. The key is to make objects slow or complicated to physically remove, while at the same time making it difficult to ascertain the way objects on display are secured, for those engaged in hostile surveillance. If a criminal cannot see the security measures in place, and therefore what they would have to circumvent to perpetrate the crime, then they will be uncomfortable and less likely to target that site.

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"Home Alone"-style security can be used in private homes, churches, offices—as long as there are objects of high value that must remain in place. Churches, with little or no budget for security, will sometimes use only low-tech security measures. But they are just as effective, if not more so, in major museums, when paired with the powerful, but fallible, ranks of high-tech security gadgetry. Sometimes you just need a few good screws.


Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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