Theft raises fears for church security

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The theft of a valuable, 450-year-old painting from a church in Larvik over the weekend points up the vulnerability of treasures inside Norwegian churches all over the country. Police fear Norway may be a new target for organized church thievery, fueled by a growing market for religious art.

Thieves smashed a window to gain entry to the locked church in Larvik, about a two-hour drive south of Oslo, in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday. They are believed to have headed straight for the altar, snatched the painting off the wall behind the pulpit and fled the same way they entered.
Police believe the thieves were well-prepared and knew exactly what they wanted. Nothing else was taken from the church, built in the 1860s on a church site from the 1600s.

The painting, by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach, depicts Jesus Christ with small children and elegantly dressed women. Cranach, who died in 1553, is also known to have used the motif in eight other variations. The painting, measuring just about a meter square, is valued at NOK 20 million (about USD 4.4 million) and now is being sought internationally as stolen property.

It had been hanging in Larvik Church for more than 300 years and church officials admit that such treasures present “an ongoing dilemma” for the state church.

“The church isn’t supposed to be a museum with massive security systems, but rather be open to the people,” Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, a former politician who’s now in charge of church property in Oslo, told newspaper Aftenposten. “We want the churches to be open, and therefore we have to live with this dilemma.”

Kenneth Didriksen of Norway’s white collar crime unit Økokrim said the theft in Larvik confirms that a trend towards professional thievery in churches in Europe in recent years now has arrived in Norway. Churches all over Europe contain paintings and other religious art that are valuable and not subject to the same security systems present in most museums.

A lack of sophisticated security systems in many Norwegian churches makes such art easy targets for theft, Didriksen noted. Larvik Church has an alarm system and it went off at 1:30am on Sunday, but the painting itself was hanging unsecured on the wall. Police believe the thieves were acting on behalf of clients who had ordered the painting.

The theft was quickly reported to Interpol and Europol in addition to national police authorities in Norway, and border authorities were alerted as well.

Biggest loss for a church ever

The painting is the most valuable treasure to be stolen from a Norwegian church in modern times. Norway’s churches, most of them owned by the state and administered through local townships, are insured, as is some of the inventory, but it’s unclear how much insurance coverage is really needed. Full coverage can be unaffordable.

Some local congregations claim they don’t receive enough funding to pay for full insurance coverage. “All of our art is irreplaceable for the congregation,” pastor Arne Fauske of historic Haslum Church in Bærum told Aftenposten. “We don’t have any budget for security guards.”

Many feel it wouldn’t be appropriate with such guards on church property anyway. Haslum Church is, like most others, locked when no services are scheduled. The locking of churches itself has been controversial over the years.

“It’s sad, but that’s just the way it is,” said Fauske. “We open up the church one evening a week, but then only with volunteer guards.”