Picasso Stolen from Brazilian Museum

A professional job:

The thieves used a hydraulic car jack to pry their way past the pull-down metal gate that protects the museum's front entrance. Then, they smashed through two glass doors, probably using a crowbar, to get to the paintings on the second floor, police said.

The fundamental problem with securing fine art is that it's so extraordinarily valuable; museums simply can't afford the security required.

Local media reports estimated their value at around $100 million, but Cosomano and other curators said it is difficult to put a price on them because the paintings had not gone to auction.

"The prices paid for such works would be incalculable, enough to give you vertigo," said curator Miriam Alzuri of the Bellas Artes Museum of Bilbao, Spain.

We basically rely on the fact that fine art can't be resold, because everyone knows it's stolen. But if someone wants the painting and is willing to hang it in a secret room somewhere in his estate, that doesn't hold.

"Everything indicates they were sent to do it by some wealthy art lover for his own collection -- someone who, although wealthy, was not rich enough to buy the paintings," Moura added.

Posted on December 27, 2007 at 1:41 PM • 44 Comments


Fred PDecember 27, 2007 2:28 PM

"The fundamental problem with securing fine art is that it's so extraordinarily valuable; museums simply can't afford the security required."

I'm afraid that I disagree. Presumably, a 100,000,000$ painting needs less than a 100,000,000$ security system protecting it (else why not steal the security system instead of the painting), so we're looking at some fraction of the value; let's say 11%, just for an arbitrary number for the purposes of the next sentance.

So instead of purchasing a painting for 100,000,000$, the museum could have purchased a (likely different) painting for 90,000,000$, and a 10,000,000$ security system (including, say, an indefinite endowment to cover ongoing costs), at the same total cost. I think that the problems for most major art museums are more like the following:
1) The art is decreased in value unless it can be viewed. Therefore, there is an impetus to give relatively public access to viewing the work of art, particularly any major works of art (which also increase interest in the museum).
2) Because major pieces of art are hard to re-sell secretly, presumably their value on the black market is less than that on the non-black market; this reduces their value to would-be thieves.
3) Art museums have a significant investment in their present building and location, and dislike re-location or making major changes to their physical building for security reasons.
4) Any security concerns are typically considered secondary to restoration and preservation concerns.

Nathan T. FreemanDecember 27, 2007 2:48 PM

"else why not steal the security system instead of the painting"

Because the painting carries resale value? A security system might COST $100 million while not having a resale value of $100 million.

sooth_sayerDecember 27, 2007 3:18 PM

As long as they didn't use the MD5 hash cracker .. we can all feel the world is not coming to an end ..

Is this a police blog or a technical one .. I just don't get the rational for this one .. is it love of Picasso or hate for jacks ..

Tremaine LeaDecember 27, 2007 3:31 PM

"The thieves used a hydraulic car jack to pry their way past the pull-down metal gate that protects the museum's front entrance. Then, they smashed through two glass doors, probably using a crowbar, to get to the paintings on the second floor, police said."

Based on the fact the room this Picasso was in had no alarm, and there was no alarm on the frame... I have to wonder just how seriously, if at all, this museum took security. Treating security as the dirty step child is one thing, but to completely fail to protect a $100,000,000 asset is mind boggling. There are plenty of low cost solutions that would have tripped in this situation.

Tremaine LeaDecember 27, 2007 3:36 PM

@sooth_sayer: It's a security blog, and Bruce tends to cover the entire gamut rather than just focusing on small areas or a single industry.

MarcDecember 27, 2007 3:41 PM

Criminal art lovers, who place an order to have a master piece stolen, and then sit on a chair in their lair looking at the picture are a movie plot, they do not exist.

Art-napping today is blackmail against insurance companies. The thieves will - over a third party - inform the museum and its insurance, that the image can be retrieved for a small reward. And that will be payed, no questions asked. In two years from now, the painting will be back.

see artloss.com

Timm MurrayDecember 27, 2007 3:43 PM

I want to own the security company that can get away with selling a metal gate that can be defeated by a car jack.

HALDecember 27, 2007 3:53 PM

"In a world where Security is all-important, nothing can ever be secure. A mountain-climbing vacation may wind up in deep Space. Or loyalty may prove to be high treason. But it has its rewards." POUL ANDERSON
An interesting concept.

RowanDecember 27, 2007 4:03 PM

I bet the cost of a security system is quite a bit more than the cost of a single competent guard.

Wang-LoDecember 27, 2007 4:05 PM

"Everything indicates they were sent to do it by some wealthy art lover for his own collection -- someone who, although wealthy, was not rich enough to buy the paintings," Moura added.

Or more accurately, "...someone who, although wealthy, did not get that way by paying the going rate for what he could more economically steal."


AnonydudeDecember 27, 2007 4:11 PM

Let's say that you're going to guard a museum with some marines -- professional soldiers with guns, and more importantly military discipline.

How many would it take?

How much would that cost per year?

I know that would be expensive, but probably not as expensive as losing one of those paintings.

anonymous canuckDecember 27, 2007 4:22 PM

@Marc - I just heard on the radio that the paintings weren't insured either. The insurance would be too costly.

So no insurance and almost no security.

I wonder how many works of art they have on loan? And how many will come off loan?

jack c liptonDecember 27, 2007 4:33 PM

The real problem, as Bruce has mentioned, especially w/r/t "single ID cards", is that the higher the value of some object the more someone will pay to get it. A Painting, for instance, is unique... and has a value all out of scale with anything mass produced... and is unlikely to ever depreciate.

So, realize, the costs involved in breaking the security systems in place will be worth it to *someone*.

And, no, I wasn't involved. Jack isn't my job. (Note reference to the Muppet Movie.)

R. Scott BuchananDecember 27, 2007 5:02 PM


One problem: that appears not always to be true. No ransom demand has ever been forthcoming in, for example, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, even though the museum is heavily insured and was less than circumspect about their willingness to cut a deal. Rather, the FBI has long suspected those particular paintings were picked because the thieves already had buyers (possibly the Genovese family). In fact I can't think of any recent high-profile art thefts where there was a ransom demand.

What does the Art Loss Register have to do with this? I'm not knocking them, I think they do good work, I'm just not clear why you referenced them.

anonymous canuckDecember 27, 2007 5:21 PM

@Mr Lipton - please accept my advance apologies for not saying hi if we ever meet you on an airplane, or anywhere near an airport or TSA employee!

Joe in AustraliaDecember 27, 2007 5:49 PM

There are many apparently-successful art thefts where the artwork is later recovered, but I've never heard about a failed theft commissioned by a super-rich art collector. I can't believe that these collectors can always cover their tracks. It seems more likely that this theft is an attempted attack against an insurer, as another poster suggested, or the gallery itself.

A rational person - and I assume anyone wealthy enought to commission a theft like this is rational - will factor the chance of detection and punishment into the cost of stealing the painting. How much would you have to pay George Soros, Warren Buffett or Bill Gates (for example) for them to be willing to risk imprisonment? I suggest that none of these people would accept a substantial risk of imprisonment for any return whatsoever, and therefore they would not risk commissioning a crime that could be traced back to them.

The people who will willingly accept a risk of imprisonment are the criminals for whom this is a business expense. The payout of, say, $1,000,000 from an insurer will be well worth risking imprisonment for a year or two because the potential reward is a huge sum for them. The super-rich will not take the risk because privately owning a famous stolen artwork is more a burden than a benefit.

Dom De VittoDecember 27, 2007 7:08 PM

They should have kept the painting in a ziplock bag - this wouldn't have happened if the DHS were in charge.
If only the crow bar had flashy lights on it - Chicago PD would have spotted the thieves and brought in a SWAT team :-)

PS. Anyone else watched 'The Thomas Crown Affair' recently? Spooky.

Private art lover is a romantic idea, but what is art you cannot show off to friends?
Surely ransom is more practical - after all the owners/insurers will happily dish out to get the piece back, rather than loose a priceless piece to a private gallery. (I don't really believe that *nobody* insured the painting, though possibly the museum didn't have cover for it)

I reckon the painting is in Antigua, as the WTO has now made this a lawless place for [intellectual] property thieves!

morrisDecember 27, 2007 8:04 PM

The problem for paying for insurance is that the museum did not pay 100 million for the painting. They probably (I don't know) bought it many years ago for a very low price, at which time the very non-secure protection they had was perfectly adequate. Years later the painting is worth far more, but the museum does not have any additional cash flow, therefore they have a valuable asset, but unless they can somehow monetize that value, they have no money to pay for security.

CarmeDecember 27, 2007 8:11 PM

Not knowing much about art and art-related crimes, it seems to me that insuring art pieces is silly because it only gives thieves seeking ransom additional leverage.

It's obvious that the "right" thing to do is to never pay ransom, to discourage kidnaps from taking place at all; but this requires sacrificing some people and no family or country is willing to make this sacrifice, so they pay large ransoms and kidnaps continue. With art, the same strategy applies and it's actually quite possible to make the required sacrifice. Losing a work of art is a sacrifice people can make to stop art theft, and it may actually make sense to sacrifice some works so resources can be taken off security and better used for preserving other works.

So it seems to me that for uninsured works of art where a ransom is demanded, the simple solution is to refuse to pay. The thieves have very little leverage. The museum might find the destruction of the work saddening, but, unlike in kidnap cases, not so much that it would act against its long term interests. It's only the insurance that creates the big financial incentive to pay the ransom (to avoid paying the insurance), giving the thieves much greater leverage.

LyleDecember 27, 2007 8:40 PM

@Joe in Australia-

There is another category of people for whom the risk of imprisonment is low: heads of state. Even if their complicity is exposed, they are not ever going to be extradited for their crimes, and so they will be certain to go unpunished.

I would be looking at top figures in the world's kleptocracies. They gladly steal from their own nations; surely they'll not shirk at stealing from Brazil.

Chad BuieDecember 27, 2007 8:55 PM

You know this is crazy where was the surveillance video, not to mention the anayltics they have out now, but there are many cheaper solutions I am sure a musem of this stature could grow into to protect areas that have expensive paintings. I always hate to hear these places getting caught with their pants down.

AlexDecember 28, 2007 2:44 AM

@Carme: good analysis. If only more people would be so rational when it comes to material things.

As regards museum security, a same weak link can be found as in airport security: the guards. It is a low paid not very motivating job. That's why in most museum heists there is some inside connection. No $ 10,000,000 security system can prevent that

robert bDecember 28, 2007 3:23 AM

if the museum couldn't afford insurance or a working alarm system, i doubt they'd be able to afford a ransom. the art lover is plausible.

Carlos CabralDecember 28, 2007 8:27 AM

I live near this Museum. They don't have somebody who thinks security. Their security guards are the same people resposible for keeping people "beyond the yellow line" and the ligths were turned off to save energy in the night of theft.
After the incident the government (responsible for the museum) decided to put the state police in charge of protecting the building.

Fred PDecember 28, 2007 9:11 AM


If that's a major problem, simply pay them more. I mean, seriously, major art museums are typically sitting on tens of millions or more in paintings. In the worst case, you auction a few off to secure the rest.

Fred PDecember 28, 2007 9:15 AM

@Nathan T. Freeman-

You're right; security systems are also less portable :-)

I guess more to my point, spending X$ to secure X$ worth of goods means that you're guaranteeing a loss of X$ (the same as if the item were stolen), so you want to spend a fraction of X$ securing it.

JOSEDecember 28, 2007 10:27 AM


ice weaselDecember 28, 2007 12:43 PM

Not to take this too far afield but may I suggest a bit more reality?

How many truly wealthy people are currently incarcerated? And I don't mean rich athelets, I mean people with real wealth.

Personally, I think the only sensible theory is that these crimes are commissioned by people who will keep these works for themselves, hidden away, quite melodramatically, in some secret location so that, quite Scrooge McDuck-like, they can ogle them all themselves whenever they wish.

Sound like a TV plot? Sure. But what other theory accounts for these crimes? Where do you fence stolen art that is known around the globe?

Finally, please don't try to tell me wealthy people commit no crime. And, as several people have pointed out, you don't get rich paying retail. How truly unbelievable is it to think that either someone commissioned this or the criminals approached someone who they knew had a "private" collection and said, "How about a Picasso for $5 million bucks?"

This stuff ends up somewhere.

mndeanDecember 28, 2007 12:47 PM

"Everything indicates they were sent to do it by some wealthy art lover for his own collection -- someone who, although wealthy, was not rich enough to buy the paintings," Moura added.

This is nonsense. It makes a couple of huge and unwarranted assumptions. It assumes not only that a person of great wealth would gladly buy the painting at the going rate (as Wang-Lo said above, why not steal it at bargain prices? Some rich folks got that way by being avaricious and the crime doesn't incur heavy penalties), it also assumes that the museum would have been interested in selling the painting.

scottDecember 28, 2007 2:32 PM

@sooth_sayer, Tremaine Lea
It's not just a security blog either. Some of us come just for the Friday Squid Blogging.

For RealDecember 28, 2007 3:18 PM

I've more respect for the pron sites discussed in the previous, than Picasso. One way or the other, the people who use porn "like" the product; most people who admire Picasso do so only because it is the "correct" thing to do.
Picasso in his phoniness is more pornographic than most web porn sites. -- And his personal life about matches.

AlexDecember 28, 2007 4:27 PM

@ Fred P: well yes that would be one solution; airport security would also greatly benefit from better paid and trained guards.
But you assume museums have sufficient budget for that. And that is questionable.
At least in the Netherlands I know that acquisitions of mayor works of art by museums are financed in a different way (e.g. through support of foundations and donations) than the running costs of the security (local government).
After an acquisition the security budget is not automatically adjusted to match the new risk profile. Interesting case to analyze by Bruce's five step model.

RogerDecember 29, 2007 3:31 PM

It's difficult to have much sympathy for the administration of this museum. Sure, their budget may be limited, but their security precautions seem to have been positively Keystone Coppish.

The thieves needed to pass just two barriers -- one of them a glass door, the other not monitored or alarmed -- to reach goods valued at possibly up to $100 million. Security footage was too poor in quality to make out anything. There were no human guards after closing time. The alarm system didn't cover the areas where the highly valued goods were stored.

Frankly, there are only two things that suggest these thieves were "professionals" rather than a couple of drunken youths on a prank: they evidently knew exactly what they wanted, and the main alarm failed (after having been attacked at least once before, 5 months ago.)

If it transpires that the main alarm was indeed bypassed, it indicates at least some skill from the thieves (or assistance from an insider.) If it simply failed, like the rest of the security t just indicates the security system was totally inept.

perpetualJanuary 2, 2008 11:22 AM

re motives: why not just steal for fun?

much like the 'hackers' of the early 90's, who's to say that this wasn't done for bragging rights (within restrictive circles), or maybe someone who got influenced by the Thomas Crown Affair?

gubJanuary 2, 2008 1:53 PM

Museums don't pay cash for art. The code of art museums is that you only buy art with other art. Bruce, what kind of security would a Picasso get this museum?

partdavidJanuary 2, 2008 2:34 PM

"The fundamental problem with securing fine art is that it's so extraordinarily valuable; museums simply can't afford the security required."

Well, you can say the same thing about money, and the above statement is overly simplistic.

You explained how safes work, in Secrets and Lies, I think: the point of them, and other security systems, is to delay thieves and alert responders. In this scenario, there seems to have been plenty of noisy delay, but no response. Just having a police response, it seems to me, would have prevented it--no expensive security required.

You don't need to protect ten million dollars in cash with some fixed amount of security: the value of the target tells you how frequently it will be attacked, and how much risk *attackers* will be willing to take and how much resource they will have, but that doesn't necessarily tell you how much you need to spend.

Josh BuckFebruary 7, 2008 10:19 PM

Are you kidding me? Who's talking about them having any security whatsoever? A car jack and a crowbar? That's how kids get into garages around here. It's obviously got to be an inside job.

Josh BuckFebruary 7, 2008 10:26 PM

How about putting a lo jack chip in the frame of the art somewhere like we do in our labtops? Cost? Cheap

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.