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Securing some of the most valuable art in the world

For nearly 40 years, John Barelli helped secure one of the most precious collections in the world at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He recently spoke to NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson about his extraordinary career and new book, "Stealing the Show: A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts."

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  • Megan Thompson:

    John, thank you so much for being with us.

  • John Barelli:

    Thank you. Nice to be here.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So the enormity of your job is just mind boggling. I mean, how do you keep a collection like that safe and secure?

  • John Barelli:

    I had a lot of help. I had over 600 security staff in the department and had a great management team of eight managers who helped me sort of manage that program.

  • Megan Thompson:

    There were no major heists under your watch, but there were a few items that did go missing over the years. Can you tell us about some of those?

  • John Barelli:

    Well, I first got there in 1978. About a year later, 1979, we got a call that a Greek head was missing.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A Greek head?

  • John Barelli:

    From one of the pedestals. And at first we thought maybe it was misplaced or you know, a curator took it into conservation or something. But when we got down to the area, we saw it was taken right off its pedestal and the wood was splintered. We said, 'We had a problem.' Well, we were able to recover it five days later on Valentine's Day, which was interesting because when The Met received the object in an acquisition there was a heart carved over its left eye. And when we recovered it, there was another heart carved over its right eye. It was in a locker in Grand Central Station. An anonymous call told us to go look for it. The police went to look for it and they returned it to us. No one was ever arrested.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Speaking of the perpetrators — I mean, who steals art? Is it usually an inside job is it somebody from the outside?

  • John Barelli:

    Well, I come to the conclusion there's three different types of art theft. And the word opportunity is important. Because we have the internal opportunist — somebody who works within an institution or in someone's home who has opportunity to take an art object. We have a person who maybe comes in from the outside. A construction worker, a visitor who sees an opportunity to take a piece of art. And then we have the professional, or person who is looking for something to steal and who has fences and ways to dispose of these objects illegally.

  • Megan Thompson:

    You write in the book, a lot of your job was not just dealing with objects going missing, but you've also got to deal with some interesting objects that showed up at the museum. Could you tell us about some of those?

  • John Barelli:

    Yeah, there was this phenomena that is still probably going on today where artists want to be in the museum. So from time to time, we've had people leave paintings at the information desk. We've had graffiti artists like Banksy put things on the wall. And we had two shrunken heads that were mailed to the museum and they wanted to give them to the curator. And it was quickly decided that they didn't want them.

  • Megan Thompson:

    They don't want the shrunken heads.

  • John Barelli:

    They didn't want the shrunken heads.

  • Megan Thompson:

    What did you do with the shrunken heads?

  • John Barelli:

    Well, we didn't know what to do with them. That's what the problem was.

  • Megan Thompson:

    John Barelli, author of "Stealing the Show." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • John Barelli:

    OK. Thank you, Megan.

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