Feb 21, 2013

A South American Intersection of Art and Failure

Currently I'm travelling in South America - enjoying scenery, wines, culture and looking forward to its heritage and arts. Unfortunately the pre-planned itinerary didn't allow for participation in the ISO TC 176 committees in Belo Horizonte Brazil in early March. However it brought to mind one of the spectacular failures in the 20th Century.

The theft of the Mona Lisa from Musee du Louvre in Paris nearly 100 years ago. Some believed, at one stage, even Pablo Picasso may have been implicated. In fact it was initiated and masterminded by an urbane South American gentleman, who acted with at least one Italian.

It was a grand failure of security processes and procedures for the Louvre, which forced them to change, improve and adapt. Without such an audacious heist the upgrade might have taken years longer. Coincidentally, the the theme for this month's ASQ Global Bloggers suggested by ASQ chief Paul Borawsky is Failure, Change, Improvement and Success.

As is often the case the theft was in part an inside job - with former Louvre employees providing the crucial intelligence on where the gaps were. Gaps - surveillance systems were being introduced into some of the great galleries of the world - but not at the Louvre. Perhaps there was a complacency and besides the costs were probably considered unnecessary and too high. The security jobs of the gallery were given to ageing former soldiers as a thanks for their past services for France.

And there were no security procedures covering temporary removal of paintings from the Gallery walls, say for repairs to frames. So initially it was thought there was nothing untoward in the absence of Mona Lisa aka La Joconde or La Giaconda from the walls of the Louvre.

The disappearance caused stunned amazement which could not be covered up. The story helped the fledgling Parisian newspaper industry to explode onto the scene - with everyone wanting to know the latest.
 It would take months even more than a year before accomplices of the urbane South american mastermind were to commit errors. Ultimately Mona Lisa was located in Italy - and of course exhibited there before her return to Paris.

A truly spectacular failure of security systems, procedures and processes unable to be hidden from the the global stage of the early 20th Century. However ultimately these failures led to re-vamped one's which may have helped reduce the incidence of later thefts - never fully preventing them of course - inside "jobs" continue every few years - and sometimes art treasures are returned years later.

And perhaps we grumble when visiting a gallery to see a little card on the wall advising of official authorization to temporarily remove an art treasure. However it is part of the systems to prevent future failures and thefts. Such bureaucratic processes and procedures could have only come about after early failures and crises.

There have been articles, books and this week a documentary by the Smithsonian Institute on the story behind the heist. A classic case study of a failure in quality systems.