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Thieves in the Night

INSTANCES of art theft have increased to between 5,000 and 8,000 a year over the past decade. This is not surprising, considering that classics such as works by Van Gogh can command $50 million in an auction. But the theft of 13 pieces of fine art at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this week is not only the biggest art haul ever. At more than $200 million in value it is the biggest criminal heist in US history.

The works were uninsured. Works of such value are, at today's prohibitive rates, uninsurable. How do you protect such art against theft or loss? How do you protect art in a world flooded with narcotics cash, in which financial transactions leave no trace?

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The thieves came in the night, dressed as police. They took five Degas, three Rembrandts, a Manet, and a priceless Vermeer - one of only 35 in the world. Rembrandt's ``Storm on the Sea of Galilee'' was the only sea-theme the Dutch master ever painted.

The high-tech, state-of-the-art security system was useless once the guards - who at $6.85 an hour make the same as kids at Burger King - were conned and tied-up. Then the thieves had the place to themselves. They cut and stripped the paintings from the frames, damaging them. How are the masterpieces now being treated?

Great paintings are a record of the best visions of the best minds. Such crimes are crimes against history.

The paintings could soon be recovered. More than half the fine art stolen each year is recovered.

We are often unmindful of our greatest treasures until they are taken from us. The Gardner Museum theft has made all the world's museums immediately more vigilant.

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