The Burglary at Bergen Museum: Make The Burglars Pay (And The Security Guard Who Helped Them Too)

Storm-winds bellow, blackens heaven!
Comes the hour of melancholy;
Back is taken what was given,
Vanished is the relic holy.
~ A. Oehlenschläger, The Gold Horns

Here's a recap: On August 12th, 2017, the Historical Museum in Bergen became the scene of the most spectacular disaster ever to strike Norwegian museum history, as more than 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the site. The thieves had entered the museum storage through a window on the seventh floor, which they accessed from a shoddily secured scaffold.

Though the burglars triggered the alarm twice, they were left completely free to ravage the collections at their own pace. Initial reports claimed that the security guard had inspected the site, but noticed no signs of tampering. This claim smelled fishy from the start, and it was soon enough revealed that the guard never actually entered the museum, because it was windy, and he figured it was just the weather that had set the alarm off. 

When the alarm sounded again, he didn't even bother to leave his office, some 300 meters away. Instead, he presumably reset the alarm from the comfort of his chair. Nobody noticed that anything was wrong until Monday morning, when employees at the museum came in to find their workplace ravaged. 

Photo: Kari K. Årrestad/ Bergen University Museum

Photo: Kari K. Årrestad/ Bergen University Museum

The trail was cold. It bore several markings of a deliberate, planned heist - apart from the highly circumstantial, literal window through which the criminals could enter the museum, which would suggested that the thieves might have taken advantage of an immediate, short-lived opportunity. It was a confusing mix, and many, including myself, suspected the workings of an organized crime league. 

After all, who would be stupid enough to commit theft on such a grand scale without the proper network, means, and market? It was one or the other: It was either a well calculated scheme by a bunch of well seasoned art theft veterans, or an impulsive act of idiocy executed by desperate imbeciles.

In light of recent events, it seems indeed that we may have given them more credit than they deserved. But if there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that we must never underestimate the malice born in the union of opportunity and short-sighted stupidity.

Some hell of a drug

Photo: Bergen University Museum

Photo: Bergen University Museum


In October, the Bergen police department was contacted by a 49 year old man who claimed to be affiliated with the burglary, citing remorse for his actions as the reason for turning himself in. On November 9th, the local newspaper BA reported on the breakthrough: Two men were now in police custody, and another two have been arrested since then, and somewhere along the lines of 300 out of the more than 400 artifacts have been returned. The police say that they will not rule out the possibility of additional arrests, with the common denominator being drug related crimes and theft.

One of them has already plead guilty on account of embezzlement, but claims he found the treasure in a bag by the Strax house - a local health center and clinic for drug addicts, right across the bridge from Bergen Museum. As a former neighbor of the clinic, I am hardly surprised. Has the Strax house made its neighborhood a rattier, dirtier, more dangerous place? I'll give that an unequivocal lol yes, but there's no point for us to unravel the ridiculous saga of how Bergen city council sweeps society's undesirables under the rug. Not here at least.

Several artifacts are still missing. Apparently some of these are also gold objects, which is alarming for a number of reasons. Some of the confiscated items have suffered severed damage, in part due to neglect, but also deliberate maltreatment. The arm-ring from Stranda, displayed at the top of the page, was sawed straight through, for instance, which is suggestive of every conservationist's worst nightmare: The perpetrators sought to re-melt and sell it for its silver value. An insult to the integrity of the artifact.

If any of the objects have suffered this fate, it is far worse than any black market transaction. They will never pop up in an online auction. They will never pop up in a police bust. They are gone forever.

A fitting punishment

Okay, so four junkies are now sweating away in the can. What next? For starters, I think we need to make examples of those responsible. I am not making this appeal out of bloodthirstiness, but because symbol laden actions demand a symbol laden response. This includes not only strict punishment for the burglars, but criminal persecution of the security guard as well, who failed - not once, but twice - to do his job. He twice enabled the crooks to help themselves.

And so he made himself complicit. His behavior represents a severe case of criminal neglect and infidelity towards his duties. The situation that followed was a direct result of his personal laziness and lack of commitment. He did everything short of waving them goodbye. I consider it a given that the security guard be stripped of his position if this hasn't been done already. He should not be trusted to work in the field again. I would not oppose a prison sentence, and at the very least he should be forced to pay compensation for the losses. 

Foto: Ole Marius Kvamme / Bergen University Museum

Foto: Ole Marius Kvamme / Bergen University Museum

Obviously, no less of a burden should befall the burglars. It should be made abundantly, glitteringly, shiningly clear that they have done irreparable harm to our collective inheritance. It must be exceedingly obvious to all, that these crimes go beyond theft and vandalism. They should be dealt with harshly. Obviously, the one who turned himself in should be dealt a proportionately reduced sentence. Honesty should should pay, too, and if it leads one to turn them all in, then all the better. How does one even quantify compensation for the malicious theft of invaluable artifacts? It must go far beyond their matieral value, that's for certain. Harsh judgments have befallen people who did a lot less.

I am not a legal expert. I am not unbiased. I write under the conviction that any crime against cultural heritage is a crime against our ancestors, a crime against our future descendants, and and a crime against all of us. It's an insult to our inheritance, and we cannot sleep at night allowing such things things to happen.

If we give the security guard his part of the responsibility for this theft, we thereby set grounds for future and current security guards to be more diligent. If we do not send this signal, we invite it to happen again.

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