By Margarita Pournara
The telephone on the secretary’s desk at the National Gallery in Athens was ringing off the hook on Thursday morning, but there was no one there to pick it up. Media staff were looking for Marina Lambraki-Plaka, director of the institution for the past 20 years, to get a reaction on a report by public administration inspector Leandros Rakintzis regarding the security of Greek museums.
The inspector’s investigation was conducted after three works, including two oil paintings by 20th-century masters Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, were stolen in a predawn heist at Greece’s biggest public art museum in January. The report found that the National Gallery was at the time protected by an unreliable and vulnerable security system. Inspectors found a series of key omissions which not only gave the thieves easy access to the building but meant the police had even less evidence to work with than they would have otherwise after the raid.
The findings of the investigation, which were leaked to the press on Thursday, may force Lambraki-Plaka to step down from the helm of the Athens institution. The director, who was out of the city when this story was being written, has not made any comments on the matter. However, in previous statements about the heist, she blamed the failure of the Culture Ministry to appoint more security guards because of financial difficulties.
However, Rakintzis’s report highlights a number of other flaws regarding the overall design and operation of the museum’s security system that made the building vulnerable to a break-in.
Additionally, it says that both the gallery’s management and ministry officials underestimated the risk of theft and failed to take the requisite measures to prevent such a scenario. Importantly, it states that the management had knowledge of the shortcomings and sent memos requesting extra staff. Nevertheless, the report adds, the management should have been more wary about the risks.
Other security compromises cited in the leaked document are the following:
There are a number blind spots around the building which are outside the view of surveillance cameras. The thieves took advantage of one of those blind spots to break into the building.
Security guards are not equipped with radios, so they use cell phones to communicate.
The burglar alarm alerts a private security firm and not the police or the Culture Ministry.
The existing staff was undertrained about how to properly respond to a case of burglary.
The alarm batteries need to be replaced. This means that the alarm often sounds for no real reason.
The CCTV system uses old-style videotapes which are never replaced because there is not enough money. As a result, footage is of extremely low quality.
According to the report, the National Gallery should employ 18 guards during the day and two for the night shift. Instead, the museum employed 11 security staff. Two of them worked at the gift shop, one at the ticket office, and one in the cloakroom. One of the guards always appeared to be off duty for some reason.
Two guards stayed on the premises during the night shift and if one of them was on leave, he was not substituted. During the January heist, by the time the guard had rushed from the CCTV room to the specific location of the robbery, the perpetrator had left the building.
The findings of the report contradict Lambraki-Plaka, who said that the management had taken all the necessary measures (barring the lack of staff). Also, they contradict the Culture Ministry statement following the theft, which said that the museum had high security standards.
Lack of legislation
The Rakintzis report underscores the lack of legislation setting out the measures that need to be taken to safeguard the country’s museums.
Experts say security was never a priority for the National Gallery. An institution that offered a work on loan for a temporary exhibition is said to have paid for extra security.
Furthermore, the National Gallery did not follow the example of other museums -- such as the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Benaki and the Museum of Cycladic Art -- that have taken steps to reinforce their security over the years.
“Many museums in Greece -- archaeological as well as others -- have poor security systems because they believe that artworks and antiquities are not targets for robbers in Greece,” a security expert told Kathimerini.
Of course recent developments, including the looting of a museum at Ancient Olympia in February, indicate that this is not the case.
“At foreign institutions, managers are primary responsible for the security of the museum and the exhibits. In Greece, it was only after these extremely unfortunate incidents, which tainted the image of the country internationally, that we realized how exposed we are to the risk. Regardless of the tight budgets, there can be no compromise when it comes to security,” the security expert said.
An internal investigation was ordered following the break-in at the gallery. The Culture Ministry has not yet published the findings.