The State of Art Protection

Our guest writer, Bill Anderson of ArtGuard, looks at the current state of art protection technologies for museums and private collections.

Picture of Bill Anderson, ArtGuard

Bill Anderson, ArtGuard

Risk reduction has become a catchall for services and products that have grown up around limiting losses throughout our lives, from physical security to financial and data protection. The question is whether the art market has kept pace in reducing loss from theft?

This applies to museums and galleries but particularly to private residences with the rise in the number of homes with valuable assets, including art, memorabilia, collectibles, antiques, jewelry and fine wine. The answer is that perceived costs and inadequate information have left too many facilities un- or under-protected, believing that proper security is already in place or, famously, “it will never happen here”. 

Distinctions should be made between the type of facility and recommended protection. Where safekeeping in institutions displaying or holding art should be a covenant with the public and receive careful scrutiny, this is usually not the case in the home. 

Perimeter security is not only the sole defense but it is usually off during the daytime when guests, workers, staff, visitors and family are milling about and when everything of value is vulnerable. A further distinction can be made between single family homes and high-rise residential buildings, where a front desk is tasked with screening the comings and goings of all the above, and, too often, trust in doormen and management is misplaced. 

Regardless of the specifics of a situation, any facility that displays or holds valuable art and assets should not depend on a single means of protection but layer or blend solutions to the point where assets are discreetly protected 24 hours a day and backup is ready in case the primary security fails or is compromised. 

Current Solutions in Brief

  • Limiting easy removal of paintings as a delaying tactic may be as simple as an inexpensive locking device that prevents quick removal of hanging work. The downside is the chance that a painting can be damaged in the process or that it can’t quickly be removed in an emergency. The keys to these devices are also easily purchased online.
  • A battery powered device is available that can protect hanging art by triggering a siren when the piece is removed from the wall, although someone must be within audible range to respond. This might be ideal for galleries where a quick alert to grab-and-run theft is the primary concern.
  • The most common component of any art and asset security system is object-specific sensors on the assets that detect their unauthorized movement. In museums, this can offer cost-effective primary security or backup to an actual guard. In the home, sensors are the most flexible solution and can either be integrated into the existing security system or be integral to a dedicated system. Because most technologies require attachment of the sensor to the artwork, there are some limitations in protecting objects other than hanging works, due to difficulty in concealing the sensor. One technology uses a sensor to detect the movement of a small rare-earth magnet placed on the object. This may offer more comprehensive and safer coverage, since the sensor doesn’t touch the object and it can read the magnet in most configurations, whether on a hanging or seated object and no matter the size. 
  • Very high-end homes and certain other facilities occasionally incorporate another type of motion sensor that detects the movement of people in a space, but the degree to which it has to be managed – armed/disarmed – to eliminate false alarms may prove to be a challenge or at least a nuisance.  
  • Video technology has rapidly advanced to the point where any system can add one or more cameras to existing security or to a number of new DIY and home automation systems. Generally, video is an after-the-fact measure to hopefully identify a perpetrator rather than prevent someone caught in the act of stealing. But more recently sophisticated software in video monitoring systems can capture a view of an object or part of a room with motion detection that throws an electronic curtain around a piece. Usually employed only in museums, the advantage is as a preventative measure to warn when someone is too close. The downside is that during museum hours it may alarm quite frequently and be impractical for homes.  
  • Another technology employed usually only in museums is RFID. With readers placed at strategic points inside the facility, movement of an object can be monitored when the chip on the object passes the reader. The obvious utility is for inventory. Standard motion sensors can also be added to the system to indicate movement at the point of contact, but the underlying costs of the system are significant enough to limit use in all but the largest facilities where inventory can justify the expense. 
  • Myth buster: One technology that is frequently misunderstood is GPS, or Global Positioning. Anyone who owns a mobile phone and uses various apps is aware that the precise location of their phone or fitness device, for example, can be pinpointed, leading one to believe this technology can be applied elsewhere. However, it’s easy to forget that fully one half of the phone is the battery. The size of the batteries to power a sustained transmission in a GPS device must be so large as to make the unit easily recognisable on a piece of art, and therefore easily removable. If for some reason it is not obvious, the batteries will last only a few hours. Look how often a cell phone in constant use has to be charged. 

Recognising that to be universally effective and efficient, an art protection product should be comprehensive, discreet, flexible enough to interface with multiple popular systems and, whether primary or secondary, able to be armed 24/7 and difficult to hack. Whatever solution is employed – and in whatever setting – going beyond door/window security to layer in a solution or solutions to protect art specifically at the point of contact will prevent devastating and compounded emotional and monetary losses, as well as a loss of trust.  

About the Author

Bill Anderson, ArtGuard

Bill was a co-founder of Art Guard in 2006 and co-developer of its patented MAP security solutions. He has led the company since 2013, introducing new technologies and expanding the market worldwide for the protection of art and valuable assets. Bill is a veteran entrepreneur with years of experience starting and running companies in technology and media. The latter included stints as president/publisher of The Atlantic Monthly and publisher of Saturday Review.

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