| A Buddha statue in British possession
London, Jan. 4: By a curious coincidence, at almost exactly the same time that a fifth century Buddha head was being stolen from the Indian Museum in Calcutta last week, thieves were breaking into the apparently much better guarded Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Perhaps this is not such a coincidence since art theft has become a global menace.
Today, the British Museum offered its expertise to its counterpart in Calcutta through the medium of The Telegraph and said it would be happy to collaborate and share information to improve security.
The British Museum 'works with its counterparts all over the world' and is, at present, helping conservation and cataloguing at the Baghdad Museum, where 'between 13,000 and 14,000 of its 170,000 objects are still missing'.
The British Museum says it is always on the lookout for stolen treasures, if only to discourage art theft in the Third World. 'Sometimes, they are brought in for our curators to look at,' said a spokeswoman.
If this was the case with an object whose provenance could not be proved ' for example, with the Buddha head stolen in Calcutta ' 'it would immediately arouse suspicion'.
Given the experiences in London, the surprise is not that the Indian Museum has had a Buddha stolen but that more have not been pilfered over the years. Although the joke in London is that thieves have reduced theft from museums to a fine art, the wisecrack isn't all that funny.
Last week, while the theft in Calcutta was taking place, the V&A, despite its better security, was about to be raided for the third time in as many months.
The theft precisely followed the patterns of the earlier attacks: tools were used to force an old wooden display case, and a pocketful of small, beautiful objects was grabbed.
'The V&A has appealed for help from the art and antiques world in tracing eight objects stolen from the museum,' said a spokeswoman. 'They are eight Italian Renaissance bronze plaquettes (small plaques), each about 10 cm high, all depicting religious scenes.'
Two are worth around '100,000-150,000 and the other six vary in value between '30,000 and 45,000.
Mark Jones, the director of the V&A, said: 'This appears to have been a well-planned professional theft. The V&A is in the middle of a major programme to upgrade security and replace old display cases with new cases throughout the museum and many galleries have been completed. This theft underlines the need to proceed as rapidly as possible. We are talking to the department of culture, media and sport about how the process of upgrading can be accelerated.'
The third theft is nothing if not embarrassing. On October 5, a group of nine small jade objects were stolen from the ceramics galleries. On November 24 followed the second theft ' 15 small Meissen (porcelain made at Meissen in Germany) figures were stolen, again from the ceramics galleries.
There is the suspicion that the same gang ' or one light-fingered individual ' is involved. The three thefts revealed detailed knowledge of the security and visitor patterns in the museum ' what in Calcutta has been called an 'inside hand'.
In each incident, the galleries were hit during opening hours but at a time when the museum was quiet, and in each, the cases were old timber ones and areas chosen were not covered by security cameras.
The V&A spokeswoman disclosed that museums routinely seek intelligence from, among others, the Art Loss Register, an organisation with offices in Europe and America which 'aims to help find what's missing'.
Nor is the V&A the only museum to suffer. The Science Museum has also recently been targeted by thieves. Objects associated with a notorious Tudor alchemist and reputed wizard, Dr John Dee, were stolen before Christmas.
According to former detective sergeant Dick Ellis, of Scotland Yard's art & antiques squad, museum 'security is a constantly moving target. As new security systems are developed, criminals develop means to get around them and security becomes an extremely expensive commodity. But it is very important that security is under a constant review and the systems are upgraded.'
Art theft is a Europe-wide problem. Last year, armed robbers stole the iconic Edvard Munch (the great Norwegian artist) painting, The Scream, from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Two masked thieves pulled the work and another painting, Madonna, off the wall in front of stunned visitors. One robber threatened staff with a gun before the pair escaped in a waiting car.
The Munch Museum said the two stolen paintings were among its most valuable ' worth an estimated $19 million.