Last Friday, a judge in the Macedonian capital Skopje convicted six employees at the state-owned Museum of Macedonia of stealing objects from the institution’s collection and selling them abroad through an organized crime ring, AFP reported.
Far from safeguarding their collection, museum director Pero Josifovski, two other museum officials, and three staff members were found guilty of pilfering 162 precious artifacts “of great importance belonging to the state.” Many of the gold and silver objects dated from the 4th century CE and originated from the famed archaeological site of Isar Marvinci in southeastern Macedonia. None have been recovered since the thefts were first reported in November 2013.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because this is far from the first time museum insiders have stolen from their institutions. Last November, staff at the government-owned State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara, Turkey, were found to have participated in a $250 million art heist of 302 works in their own institution between 2005 and 2009. In 2006, an audit at the state-owned Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, found that staff members had abetted the theft of over 200 objects with an estimated value of $5 million (more recently, a Hermitage Museum employee was charged with clipping illustrations out of rare books and selling them in antique shops).
It might seem that corrupt governments breed a culture of dishonesty that creeps into their institutions; Macedonia, Turkey, and Russia all fare grimly on Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Index. But the link is likely less direct.
“Corruption is a menace that lurks wherever money or high-valued objects are concerned,” art crime expert and Art Recovery International CEO Chris Marinello told Hyperallergic. “When it occurs, the blame must be placed squarely at the feet of the individuals involved rather than with governments or institutions.”
In the US, a country rated by TI as the 17th least corrupt in the world, museum directors, curators, and personnel have pinched objects from such reputed institutions as the Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Aviation, and even the National Archives and Records Administration. Elsewhere, staff have stolen from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Amsterdam City Archives, the Danish Museum of Art and Design, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, among many others. FBI special agent Robert Wittman has noted that about 90% of art thefts are internal.
But why do museum employees do it? Patty Gerstenblith, who in 2011 was appointed as the chair of President Obama’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee in the US Department of State, told Hyperallergic that one answer might actually be quite simple: “If anything, insider theft tends to correlate with how poorly museum guards and other personnel are paid.” It follows that in impoverished countries — which are often also corrupt — wages are likely lower, driving up the incentive to steal.