Safe keeping of artefacts

Safe keeping of artefacts

The theft of irreplaceable artefacts and vestments from l’Eglise Sainte-Marie in d’Oloron-Saint-Marie in SW France this month reminds us all of the need for the protection of our moveable religious heritage. We can no longer assume that because items are in a sacred building they are safe from unscrupulous thieves and collectors in both urban and rural areas. Perhaps rural religious buildings are more vulnerable as their religious uses are lessening as are their regular worshippers. Thought must therefore be given as to how to protect our precious European heritage without resorting to placement in a museum.

Locking a church and keeping it locked is never a good idea, as – contrary to what one might expect – it makes buildings more vulnerable.[1] This is for several reasons:  people, including thieves and vandals, wonder what is inside that is so valuable that the church needs to be locked up; they can also assume that no one is around to stop them breaking in. Thieves and vandals breaking in make a huge amount of damage, which is itself an expense. An open building is a better deterrent, especially if it is welcoming and looks ‘loved’, and if volunteers look in on it frequently. Moveable artefacts of value should not be on display, except when in use, and should be replaced by less valuable artefacts, such as candelabra. It is important to have furnishings as this helps to make the building look used.

A set of colour photos of all art work and artefacts should be taken, alongside a full inventory of all items. Both of these can be digitally stored but also should be on paper and lodged safely away from the building. All moveable items should be security-marked, including vestments. Anything valuable should be stored away from the religious building for preference, though a very strong safe can be used in the building as long as its place is only known to one or two people. Security cameras, which are getting cheaper, are an option. These need to be placed where they are not easily seen, but they also need monitoring, and this requires ongoing volunteer effort.

Finally, local people are an invaluable security system themselves, even if they are not religious. In rural areas they are excellent at keeping their eyes and ears open (especially if they know it is for a good cause); they can identify strangers immediately.

Updates from Belgium

The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage has an online archive: There is a register for stolen artefacts. CRKR has one in Flanders. CIPAR is helping parishes to update inventories in Wallonia.

FRH hopes that this article will be of some use in keeping our European Religious Heritage safe for future generations.

Jennie Hawks 
FRH Council Member


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