Stolen Bill Reid Art at UBC – How to protect your own artwork

Bill Reid's Jade Canue at YVRNewspapers throughout Canada, and the United States, reported today about the theft of several of Bill Reid’s works from the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Here are links to the Province, CBC and the Seattle Times (all more or less the exact same).

While I only know as much about this incident as has been reported so far in the media, and the Police are yet to tell the public what they know about it (that will happen Monday)… I am surprised that the level of security at the Museum was low enough to allow this to happen.

Protecting artwork can be tricky, it is certainly not as easy as installing a magnet or motion detector in a regular home… but it can certainly be done.

For many of our clients who have valuable artwork, one of the simplest security measures we take is to install either a hardwired or wireless contact so that as soon as the piece is moved, the alarm trips. In most cases, because of the value of the frame, a small, flat wireless contact is best because they can be attached without causing any damage to the artwork.

Most importantly though, these contacts are assigned to their own separate partition on the alarm system, which is programmed to be on 24 hours a day (the same way we program smoke detectors). This way, no one ever needs to remember to arm/disarm the artwork… it is always on. This is a simple programming decision that completely eliminates the risk of someone either ‘forgetting’ to arm the system or being able to disarm the system if under duress (without sending a panic signal).

For pieces of art that are not so easy to apply a contact to, a properly designed video system often works best. If you are trying to protect a sculpture, sitting on a table in the middle of the room, a camera gets mounted somewhere close by with a very clear view of the space surrounding the piece. Using separate software (or hardware depending on the application), the system is programmed for several ‘rules’. One example might be that movement will be allowed 3 feet away from the piece, but as soon as anything (like a hand) comes within a pre-defined zone around the object an audible alarm will sound. A second rule would send an alarm signal if that hand, or whatever, moves within 10 inches of the piece.

We use systems like this to create an alarm when someone climbs over a fence, but ignore when someone comes through the gate properly or to send an alarm when someone has been standing in front of a store window for too long during early morning hours. This technology allows us to use a camera as an intelligent motion detector that is able to distinguish between activity that is ‘ok’ versus that that is likely to be suspicious. There are thousands of possible applications for this technology, and a museum is certainly a perfect place for it to be deployed.

Using a video system in this manner is infinitely more useful that having a security guard, or anyone, sitting in front of a bank of monitors trying to watch what is going on. When applied appropriately, video analytics can allow for the alarm system to send a signal while someone is still just thinking about stealing something, as opposed to after they have already done so.

Of course, many levels of security need to be in place at each stage to prevent and detect any kind of tampering with the system.

The most obvious weak point of any system, whether in a museum or home, is the telephone lines. There is little value in spending a bunch of money on security devices but not dealing with the risk of the system being compromised by someone cutting the phone lines. The BLINK network is by far the best and most secure option for anyone on the Westside or in Yaletown… outside of those areas, digital cellular back-up will work best.

Without question, the single most effective security tactic is to five-minute proof your belongings…

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