University museums and libraries are keeping hundreds of millions of pounds of valuable assets uninsured against theft, it emerged this week. The Pounds 3 million Cezanne stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on New Year's Eve was not insured. Inquiries have confirmed that this is common practice across the sector.
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said that the museum does not cover its works of art against theft. "We don't insure our own collections," she said, "These things are irreplaceable, so the premiums are astronomical."
Other major university museums and libraries follow a similar policy, Alistair Smith, chair of the University Museums Group and Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester, confirmed. "People don't insure their own collections against being stolen," he said, "although we are supposed to keep up-to-date valuations."
Generally, the only works that are insured by university museums are those on loan from or to other galleries, where they may be covered by government indemnity. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where insurance is more common.
Of the 51 museums and galleries holding collections designated by the Museums and Galleries Commission as "of pre-eminent national importance", 15 are the responsibility of higher education institutions. They range from paintings by Titian at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and Egyptian relics held at the Petrie Museum, University College, London, to paintings and prints of livestock at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading.
James Emson, managing director of the Art Loss Register, pointed out that high-profile thefts by outsiders are not the greatest risk. Insiders with knowledge of collections not on display may have more opportunity to take valuable works.
"Many museums have stacks of stuff stored in cellars, and unless they have regular audits, how will they know if they lose something?" he said.