Collection Theft and Security Monitoring

From SPNHC Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search


The aim of the SPNHC Collection Theft and Security Monitoring Toolkit is to provide information about measures that would prevent or deter collection theft, communications channels that could be used to alert the collections community of thefts, and methods to monitor for the recovery of lost specimens.


SPNHC Collection Theft and Security Monitoring of Collections Sessional Committee Co-chairs, Paul Mayer and Rob Zschernitz, and Member-at-Large (Breda Zimkus).


This group was formed after the plenary talk at the 2019 Annual Meeting at the Field Museum by Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, a theft Natural History Museum at Tring. This theft was notable because items were taken from a closed collection, rather than a public museum or exhibit. The theft occurred on 24 June 2009 and involved the removal of 299 bird specimens. The police announced on 12 November 2010 that a 22-year-old US citizen, Edwin Rist, had been arrested in connection with the theft. Rist sold many of the feathers in Victorian salmon flies to raise money to buy a gold flute. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail, suspended for two years, and a supervision order in April 2011. He was also required to repay £125,150, the estimated proceeds from selling the skins through such outlets as eBay. The police also advised that 191 intact bird skins had so far been recovered, of which only 101 had labels recording the birds' key scientific data.

Activities and Meetings

  • Special Interest Group at 2019 Annual SPNHC meeting (Field Museum)
  • Committee Meeting during 2020 SPNHC Annual Meeting (virtual)
  • Committee Meeting during 2021 SPNHC/AIC Annual Meeting (virtual)
  • Special Interest Group at 2021 SPNHC/AIC Annual Meeting (virtual)
  • Symposium on Collection Theft and Security Monitoring of Collections at 2021 SPNHC/AIC Annual Meeting (virtual)

Preventative Actions

Collections must find a balance between acceptable levels of security and either alienating the community or discouraging use of the collections. If the collection is insured and/or subject to federal agency guidelines, a minimum level of security may be required. At a minimum, closed collections should require that visitors sign in and provide contact information, before using the collections. It is recommended that any visitors that may be unaccompanied in the collections be verified before their scheduled visit; unscheduled visits are not recommended. Depending on the group, different policies or practices may be used. For example, public tours may be considered higher risk than vetted researchers, so members of the public should not be left unaccompanied in collection spaces.

There are a range of approaches that could assist in deterring thefts, and security should include as many layers of protection between objects and those who wish to steal them:

  • Implement request and receive policy in lieu of allowing researchers to browse through collection alone
  • Limit personal possessions (e.g., bags, jackets) in collections spaces
  • Perform package and bag inspections on departure
  • Require visible security badges/passes or ID cards
  • Restrict access to some areas of the collections by including locked rooms
  • Include locks on specimen cabinets or specific cabinets that include higher valued specimens (e.g., ivory, holotypes)
  • Refrain from publishing maps of collection spaces online

There are a number of additional ways that staff can also assist in maintaining secure collections and deterring theft:

  • Catalog specimens and digitize collections since museums need to know what they have to recognize when something is taken; digitizing may also reduce number of in-person visitors if researchers can use digital information instead of accessing physical specimen
  • Conduct both regular and random inventory audits of collection as they may help reduce the time between the theft and the realization of items have been stolen
  • Conduct a risk assessment of the collections to identify higher risk objects (see:
  • Ensure that digitized collection information available online does not make collections vulnerable to theft

Staff Considerations: Hiring, Training, and Offboarding

Before hiring new potential employees, references should be contacted and background checks should be conducted to verify employment history, education, and credentials. Proper training will help staff to recognize and report suspected missing objects, and staff should be encouraged to quickly report thefts, including loss of keys or access badges. In addition, staff should be informed to:

  • Avoid discussing from details on where and how specimens are secured in the collections
  • Refrain from advertising the value of objects
  • Be on alert for suspicious activity that may actually be people attempting to steal items or conduct surveillance

Offboarding procedures for employees that leave the institution as a result of resignation, retirement, or termination should maintain security of collections. An offboarding checklist should be created to prevent former employees from both accessing physical spaces and specimen metadata stored in institutional devices and online databases:

  • Decommission or return access credentials (e.g., ID badge/cards) and/or surrender of keys
  • Revokement of database privileges and network access
  • Login credentials should not be reused for the person taking over the position, and if they must be reused, passwords should be changed
  • Ensure return of company-provided property including hardware and mobile devices
  • Remove employee information from systems, such as contact lists and websites.

Insurance and Value Assignment

When assigning a monetary value to a specimen, one should not only consider the actual monetary value but other factors:

  • Aesthetic and/or artistic significance
  • Educational use
  • Replacement costs, which may include staff time and field costs associated with obtaining replacement specimens
  • Scientific research potential

Risk Levels

When determining the appropriate risk categories for collections, staff should consider these various forms of value or significance as they apply to the following risk category definitions (from Suggested Practices for Museum Collections Space Security, 2013):

A. Low Risk: Items are considered to be of such value that the impact of their unauthorized access, removal, theft, or damage would not be significantly detrimental to the image or reputation of the museum. Duplicate or replacement items might fill their void.
B. Medium Risk: Items are considered to be of sufficient value that the impact of their unauthorized access, removal, theft, or damage would be significantly detrimental to the image or reputation of the museum. In the absence of any risk category designation, the default risk level assignment for any collections would be that of Medium Risk.
C. High Risk: Items are considered to be of sufficient value such that the impact of their unauthorized access, removal, theft, or damage would be highly detrimental to the image or reputation of the institution and could impact the mission of the museum.
D. Very High Risk: Ownership or display of the items is a newsworthy event. Items are considered to be of sufficient value such that the impact of their unauthorized access, removal, theft, or damage would be extremely detrimental to the image or reputation of the institution such that the ability of the institution to receive borrowed collections or gifts may be impacted.

Note: Objects on loan may carry conditions that require a level of protection above that which the museum would normally establish if the item were in its collections.

Institutions should consider implementing different security protocols for each level. For example, type specimens and high value collections may be considered “Very High Risk” and, therefore, have additional security measures associated with their storage or monitoring.

Response to Potential Theft

Institutions should educate their collection staff so they know the proper procedures to follow when something has gone missing. The following are some recommended steps to include:

  • Notify the relevant members of the institution’s administration immediately.
  • Notify the local police immediately.
  • Identify the person who will be the contact for the police during the investigation, who may either be part of the administration or a staff member.
  • Retain a copy of the police report and all related records of the incident because police departments purge records over time.
  • Prepare a description of the item(s), including the type of item, approximate size and weight, identifying marks (e.g., tags, numbers), and distinguishing features to provide to the police
  • Consider contacting the local FBI office so they can record the loss and assist in distributing information, especially if you suspect that the stolen object(s) may cross state lines.
  • If the object is insured, contact the insurance company.
  • If a researcher is suspected of taking items and they are visiting other museums during the same trip, it would be valuable if the first institution discretely informed the others so: 1) a request and receive mode of retrieval could be used over browsing or 2) the staff could check-in with the researcher more regularly

Communication Channels

Informing the larger community may assist institutions in both finding stolen objects and letting other institutions know about potential vulnerabilities. A range of existing communication channels, including listservs and social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) have been identified in the natural history community:

The Arts community also have several communication channels and are potentially more experienced in this area, such as the Art Loss Register; [Note: There is an administrative fee to register a stolen item, and additional fees are assessed if the item is located.]

Monitoring for Stolen Specimens

Staff can also monitor websites and use automated alerts to track items that have been stolen:

  • Facebook marketplace could also be used to sell stolen items and could be monitored
  • The use of automated alerts is also recommended, especially since there may be a substantial period of time between the theft and when items attempt to be sold.
  • In the UK, there are auction alerts on, which cover a large number of auction houses.
  • It is possible to create alerts on
  • Given that a large number of thieves will potentially tweet about the objects, it would be possible to monitor twitter using a form of sentiment analysis.

Education and Engagement

  • People may be ignorant of the scientific value of the collections, so engaging communities might reduce thefts. See Importance of Collections.
  • It may also be useful to educate and train people in the amateur community to identify objects that are either on a list of stolen items or which appear to be museum objects via characteristic labels, marks, or preparation methods.


Buck, R. (Editor) & Gilmore, J.A. (Editor). 2010. Museum Registration Methods Fifth Edition. AAM Press, American Alliance of Museums.

Farren-Bradley, A. 2016 What makes a museum secure? Apollo.

Grove, L. & Thomas, S. 2016. ‘The Rhino Horn on Display Has Been Replaced by a Replica’: Museum Security in Finland and England. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies. 14 (1), p.1.

Human Detector - systems guard exhibits and pieces of art in collections and museums (Vendor).

ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods.

International Council of Museums. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums.

International Committee for Museum Security.

Inside Museum Security Systems Around The World.

Johnson, Kirk W. 2018. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. New York, New York: Viking.

Museum Association Security Committee (American Alliance of Museums).

Museum Security Network.

Museum security - Security Magazine.

Security in museums and galleries: the museum security toolkit. Arts Council England 2013.

Suggested Practices For Museum Security.