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Harvard University library reels as art thiefs get smarter, richer

Boston’s long list of universities and museums makes it one of the nation’s culture capitals, luring scholars from around the world with promises of extensive museum and library collections.

Some art specialists aren’t in Boston for academic reasons, however. They wander galleries and rare book rooms, not as students but as shoppers ready to steal themselves a fortune in artistic treasures.

Art thieves continue to prove that great collections can be made — and taken away — with the right planning, even if that means overcoming high-tech security measures to do it.

The latest theft occurred at Harvard University, putting the art world on alert once again. On March 14, workers at the Harvard-Yenching Library were horrified to discover that 41 Chinese books and two scrolls had been swiped from the secure Rare Book Room. The pieces, which date back more than 1,000 years and are valued well beyond $1 million, were missing for six months before rare book specialist Chun Shum realized they were gone.

The stolen volumes, which contain poetry and paintings that have attracted researchers from around the globe, made up a significant part of the library’s special collection. Harvard-Yenching has the largest collection of East Asian books outside of Asia, although officials claim that the loss leaves a gaping hole for academia to deal with.

“Many of the pieces were rare and unique,” said Beth Brainard of the Harvard College Library. “It’s a terrible loss. When pieces like that are taken, it’s a blow. It’s not the money value, it’s the loss to scholarship that’s the issue.”

According to the FBI, the stolen works cover a period of history from 960 to 1911, which includes the Song, Yuan, Ming and Quing periods.

While the bureau is conducting an ongoing investigation, no suspects have been found.

For officials at Harvard, the theft has left them thinking about how to give people access to important pieces without exposing treasures to potential harm.

According to Brainard, that problem is greater in the library setting because scholars need to take closer looks at pieces to benefit from them. In the case of the books and scrolls, for example, the contents would be of little value if no one could read them.

“There’s a fine line between making the materials accessible and protecting them,” Brainard said. “We’re always conscious of that line. We struggle with it and we certainly always are looking at security and ways to improve it. That’s an ongoing challenge.”

Harvard has been the victim of theft before and, for the most part, has been lucky in recovering stolen pieces.

A Spanish citizen named Jose Torres-Carbonnel in 1996 took about 3,000 rare books from the Widener Library and the Fine Arts Library at the Fogg Museum.

Stephen Womack, known as “the Slasher,” stole about 400 books and destroyed or mutilated many others when he worked as a shelver at the Widener from 1989-94.

Torres-Carbonnel and Womack were both caught by police and Harvard got back most of what had been stolen. Officials are now hoping that they’ll have the same success with the Harvard-Yenching pieces.

“This loss will be felt,” Brainard said. “We are so hopeful that the materials will be found.”

The story is grimmer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where officials are still waiting for $200 million worth of paintings to be recovered from a robbery that was described as “the biggest art theft since the 1911 robbery of the Mona Lisa.”

According to the FBI, two men posing as police officers gained entrance into the museum by telling on-duty security personnel that they were responding to a disturbance call. When the guards let the men in, going against regulations, they were bound with duct tape and handcuffs.

The two thieves spent more than an hour inside the museum, collecting choice pieces that police believe they had staked out long before the robbery. They left with five works by Degas, three Rembrandts, one Monet, one Vermeer, one Govaert Flink, and one Chinese bronze “ku” beaker from the Shang Dynasty.

The thieves also took the security camera tape, leaving the FBI with only vague descriptions from the security guards. More than 10 years later, the case is still open.

At the museum, empty frames still hang on the walls. Because of terms of a will left by Isabella Stewart Gardner, who established the museum, the collection cannot be permanently altered and the stolen pieces cannot, therefore, be replaced.

Museum officials remain plagued by the theft and admit that the fear of another one affects the way they do business, including how they spend millions on new technology.

“[The threat] affects us a great deal,” said Hassan Bouhov, chief of security operations at the Gardner Museum. “The industry in general has made some great strides in terms of electronics, gadgetry, thinking in general. The person with the flashlight and nightstick today is an educated person, someone who can be here and think for themselves. They need to make decisions that will ultimately affect the museum as an institution and the industry as a whole.”

Often, thieves, too, are educated people who have some high-tech tricks up their sleeves. Thumbing through the FBI stolen art files, it becomes obvious that the successful thieves know their art — they know what they want and where to find it. At both Harvard-Yenching and the Gardner Museum, the thieves picked out some of the best pieces amidst literally thousands of other choices.

New equipment makes the modern-day art robbery much more complicated than tying up a few guards. Security officials find themselves trying to keep up with inventions, including computers that can override alarm systems.

At the Gardner Museum, better equipment and trained guards have relieved some tension about future thefts but can do little to ease the blow from the 1990 robbery.

Bouhov remains optimistic, however, hoping that the prominence of the stolen pieces will lead to their recovery.

“There’s always a good chance [of getting the pieces back],” he said. “We’re lucky because they’re well-known pieces so somebody in their right mind just wouldn’t buy them. They don’t make for good bargaining tools in the underground market. But, of course, there’s always a chance that they’ll slip through the cracks.

“We’ll find them one of these days.”

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