YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Michelangelo of Security

July 09, 1990|DAVID COLKER

For more than 25 years Joseph Chapman has made his living, in part, by breaking into museums.

"I walked through the museum like I was a visitor and then at the end of the day I went into a men's room stall and hid there," said Chapman, 60, a ruggedly built man who speaks about art with reverence. The story he was telling took place in 1965 at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Tex. "At 5 o'clock I heard the toggle switches go and everything got dark and quiet," he said.

"And the museum was all mine."

Chapman was not there to take anything. Rather, he was intent on leaving something behind--his business card. Chapman, a former FBI agent, is founder of one of the best known museum security companies in the world. He and his team of architects and engineers have designed security systems for the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, the Forbidden Museum in Beijing, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, some of the Smithsonian museums and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Locally, he has done work for the the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Norton Simon Museum and the Gene Autry Museum, for which his team designed a high-tech system so pervasive that it makes use of cameras hidden inside the heads of manikins, microwave motion detectors hidden in the walls and tiny electronic sensors attached to every object on display.

In the last week-and-a-half, the number of calls coming into his Connecticut-based firm has increased at least 50%, Chapman said. The reasons are easy to trace. On June 28, three Van Gogh paintings were stolen from the North Brabant Museum, 55 miles south of Amsterdam, and last Wednesday three paintings were taken from three museums in Paris, including a Renoir that was sliced from its frame in the Louvre.

"We've been getting calls from museums I have never heard of," Chapman said, adding that they had a similar flurry of calls in March after the theft of $200 million worth of paintings and drawings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. "There is nothing like a terrible robbery to call attention to the woeful security situation in some museums."

Indeed, Chapman leaves today for the Netherlands--officials of the North Brabant Museum are bringing him in to visit their institution and discuss what a new security system would entail.

He has not been contacted by the Louvre. "French museum officials don't much like to call on outsiders," said Chapman, who has been a frequent visitor to that museum. Asked to hazard an assessment of the Louvre's security arrangements, he said he has noticed that the security guards are not aggressively diligent.

"Unfortunately, at the Louvre the security guards are almost all, by requirement, disabled war veterans," Chapman said. "The problem is that they have not had a war recently from which to draw worthwhile people."

Chapman began dealing with art thefts in 1958 when J. Edgar Hoover appointed him as the first FBI agent to exclusively investigate these types of crimes. He made several famous art recoveries while with the bureau, including Picassos stolen from a Pittsburgh industrialist (Chapman was made up to look like the industrialist to deal with a thief who demanded ransom) and a group of Paul Cezanne drawings stolen in France.

In 1964, Chapman left the bureau to be a consultant to Lloyd's of London, the New York attorney general and an art heist movie entitled "How to Steal a Million." He set up his own security firm in New York, and one of the first calls came from an old friend, the director of the Carter Museum in Ft. Worth. "He told me, 'We have a good security system but I would like to have an outside evaluation. Why don't you drop in some time? You don't even have to tell me you are coming.' "

Chapman, who believes in the element of surprise, left on a flight that same morning to Ft. Worth. Being careful not to be seen by the museum director, he toured the Carter and then hid. He was a "stay behind," in the jargon of the art-theft world. He wandered the museum halls unchallenged, placing his card behind several pictures. He also got into the director's office to leave another card and a note giving the telephone number of his hotel across the street.

When he left through a door, he purposely tripped a photoelectric beam alarm and then went up to his room to observe the police response.

"The director called me the next morning," he said. After muttering an epithet in greeting, the director demanded that Chapman "come over here and have lunch." Chapman eventually designed a new security system for the museum, one that has at least so far guarded it from "stay behinds" or any other kind of theft.

Los Angeles Times Articles