Theft: A Real Threat to Religious Heritage

By Paul Denton, M.S., M.B.A., and John Kleberg, M.Ed.

While security and law enforcement officers respond to increasing incidents of violence in houses of worship, opportunities to recognize, appreciate, and help preserve valuable artwork and religious artifacts remain neglected. The residual effects of the theft of historically significant fine art or silver pieces can distress a religious community for generations. It harms a much broader part of a community’s cultural heritage than people imagine.

Thefts of religious, cultural, and historical objects from local communities occur too often. Loss of silver chalices and patens, paintings by the masters and other important artists, and artifacts of historical significance to faith-based communities no longer seem unusual. Sometimes, these items represent the history of the religious community, found in its origins or carried from Europe by those seeking a less restrictive religious experience. Unquestionably, the resale market abounds, and thieves appear insensitive to the importance of such items.

Addressing the Problem

In November 2012 the Vatican police chief addressed Interpol regarding increasing and extensive thefts of religious artifacts.1 The chief indicated that houses of worship, particularly in Italy and throughout Europe, contain valuable works of art that thieves easily can carry away when a church is empty or the priest and community appear unaware of their value.2 “Humanity’s spiritual thirst and desire to praise God ‘have given life to works of inestimable value and to a religious patrimony that gives rise to greed and the interest of art traffickers,” Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican police, told members of Interpol.3

This painting of Christ on the cross is a copy by Andrea Guglielmi of an original completed in Rome by Guido Reni (1575-1642), likely in the early 19th century.
This painting of Christ on the cross is a copy by Andrea Guglielmi of an original completed in Rome by Guido Reni (1575-1642), likely in the early 19th century.

Documenting the frequency of incidents of theft and vandalism of religious cultural property proves difficult because of variations in law enforcement record keeping around the world. However, international trafficking of such property appears among the top most common crimes.4

The majority of thefts occur from private homes; however, other common targets include museums and places of worship. The type of objects stolen varies from country to country; however, paintings, sculptures, statues, and religious items seem highly sought after by thieves.5 Newspaper reports often affirm the problem: “Los Angeles police continued their investigation Monday into the theft of nearly 40 religious artifacts from a Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood. The list of stolen items included a baptismal kit, chalices, and crosses,” the church said.6

On March 18, 2015, in upstate New York, thieves stole an ornate brass-and-bronze tabernacle—valued between $3,300 and $5,000—from a Catholic church.7 Approximately 60 percent of the parishioners consisted of law enforcement officers, firefighters, and their families.8 Often, robbers convert cultural and religious objects into cash by selling the items on the open market, via websites, or to collectors at antique shows or similar venues.

A Latin American historian and researcher urged Peruvian bishops to implement 2001 Vatican guidelines that cover the protection and exhibition of religious art. Joint campaigns involving the Catholic church in countries, such as the United States, which often are destinations for smuggled artwork, and source countries, like the Andean nations, were called for to raise awareness of the importance of conserving Latin America’s colonial religious art and discouraging people from buying these stolen items. This historian suggested that American and European Catholics help parishes in their homelands raise money to install security systems. With joint efforts, law enforcement could recover some, but probably not all, stolen artifacts. However, by sharing the story little by little, items may return.9

Safeguarding Houses of Worship

In England, due to safety and security issues in houses of worship—including many historic churches often visited by tourists—various crime concerns, particularly theft, resulted in a program called National Churchwatch.10 Founded by a former police constable, this undertaking initially received support from a major church insurance company. Programs now range from protecting facilities and clergy to training docents and others involved in tourism while securing the church and the artifacts displayed or used for worship.

John Kleberg
Mr. Kleberg, a consultant on the protection of artistic, cultural, and historical objects, is a retired assistant vice president of Ohio State University in Columbus, previous chief of the University of Illinois Police, and former deputy chief of the Ohio State University Police.
Paul Denton
Mr. Denton, a consultant on the protection of artistic, cultural, and historical objects, is a retired chief of the Ohio State University Police in Columbus and former commander of the Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police.

Community members, parishioners, and clergy often do not realize items’ worth and value when safeguarding churches that are open and welcoming at all hours. Paintings, altarpieces, and even some textiles contain historic, artistic, and intrinsic value.

For example, a property record bearing signatures of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—reportedly maintained in a rural church office somewhere in the United States—has particular value for the signatures alone. As with most churches, this one sometimes remains unoccupied, and breaking and entering by a thief would result in an important loss of local history. Major works of art by renowned artists, such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, often serve as targets in Europe; however, even on the Internet, thieves can view appealing images of historic churches and places of worship filled with objects they easily could convert to cash.

The theft of a family Bible in central Ohio represents a case of personal, religious, and historic significance. In December 2011 the Union County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Department received a report of a robbery. Early reporting, strong leads, and effective investigation by sheriff’s detectives quickly led to the recovery of some of the property; however, a treasure of personal and religious history, a 1706 German language family Bible, remained missing. For over 300 years, this Bible passed from generation to generation within the family.

While conducting a genealogy search online in January 2013, a distant relative of the Bible’s owner noted a posting from a person in New Mexico. It described the Bible, which thieves stole more than a year prior. Sheriff’s investigators quickly followed leads and information provided and learned that the manager of a local thrift store office remembered the Bible. The manager provided information regarding the purchaser to police. That initial buyer lived in Georgia, but the Bible was shipped to Louisiana. However, cooperating Louisiana law enforcement officers determined that the Bible was returned to Georgia.

When they located the purchaser in Georgia, the individual agreed to return the Bible upon purchase by the original owner. Disregarding issues of transfer of title of stolen property, law enforcement officers agreed to use funds obtained from the Fraternal Order of Police lodge to purchase and return the Bible to the family in Ohio.

Officers recognized the historical and religious significance of the Bible, appreciated the importance to the family, and extended their efforts beyond just locating the offenders. They personally committed themselves and their collective resources to ensure the Bible’s safe return to its rightful owners. Tireless and intensive investigative work by the sheriff’s detective resulted in a successful outcome.

Photos courtesy of the Shier family.
1706 German language family Bible. Photos courtesy of the Shier family.

Protecting Artifacts

Law enforcement outreach to local religious communities should include efforts to identify and secure artifacts. These endeavors could consist of a few simple, yet critical steps to protect these items.

  1. Develop an inventory: This proves crucial to locating and identifying items of historic, cultural, or artistic value. The house-of-worship staff should retain a complete list of these objects.
  2. Establish records: Maintaining files of artifacts becomes essential. With digital photography, staff may store and print high-quality color photos of each item. These pictures become extremely valuable when reporting a loss to police or notifying registries of stolen objects. Detailed written records of objects should include the medium, dimensions, material, proof or artist marks, and any other similar details. These serve as important documents for recovering lost items or proving ownership.
  3. Mark items: Initially, it may appear impossible to mark all items because of composition or intrinsic value; however, another option to consider involves using ultraviolet or invisible ink or radio frequency identification device (RFID) tags, which attach to the object. Staff could affix a small—less than one-half inch in size—transponder to a frame, parament, or altar hanging of particular value or significance. Using a unique code, an individual could establish ownership. Another option involves local alarms that sound when someone removes an object from a wall mounting. Staff, police officers, or clergy could fasten these to paintings and wall hangings.
  4. Insure property: Office staff and clergy should review the casualty insurance coverage to ascertain that the property protection program includes all artifacts. They should list particularly high-value items separately.

Many congregations or parishes of various faiths worship in buildings considered historical sites, of architectural interest, or known to contain treasures brought to the United States from the Old World. Such sites and objects often hold significant cultural value.

Establishing Partnerships

Few police officers receive training on the cultural context of historic and religious property. Once a thief steals an item, the officer’s focus should shift to collecting evidence and establishing facts of the crime. It sometimes proves necessary for clergy to describe to many police investigators the deep significance, meaning, or value an item holds for members of a faith-based community or even the officers’ own neighborhoods.

Establishing relationships between religious leaders, security professionals, and local law enforcement officers should occur before the need arises. An interfaith association, local seminary, or clergy organization may provide a meet-and-greet opportunity for local police and help build understanding with lasting results. If the police department has a chaplain, that individual could open the door to conversation and serve as a liaison.

Officers sometimes lack familiarity with various religious traditions, experiences, and practices communities bring from other countries. Investigators assigned to such theft cases should undergo specialized training and awareness. Information sharing and intelligence help identify potential targets, resources, and threats. Immeasurable value comes from a patrol officer stopping at a church, synagogue, or mosque and becoming acquainted with clergy and office staff.

A quick Internet search finds church security organizations and property insurance carriers that serve as valuable resources. Before seeking and enlisting the services of an online group, clergy should discuss potential programs with local members of their faith-based community. Religious centers should consider appointing a safety-and-security committee or leader and conducting a review, at least annually, of all protection measures.


Safety and security remain practical issues that religious leaders and clergy must not ignore while carrying out the primary mission for their faith-based communities. A simple assessment of physical security measures, such as lighting, locks, and locations of entries and exits, proves worthy of annual review. Some basic steps—inventorying, recording, marking, and insuring objects—help alleviate losses. Establishing partnerships between local law enforcement and religious communities improves protection, enhances relationships, and helps preserve cultural and historic artifacts. Religious heritage remains a part of almost every culture and country, and responsibility continues today for individuals to protect and preserve cultural and religious heritage for tomorrow.

For additional information Mr. Denton may be contacted at and Mr. Kleberg at


“Vatican Police Chief Talks to Interpol about Protecting Religious Art,” Catholic News Service, November 8, 2012, accessed April 11, 2016, 2012/vatican-police-chief-talks-to-interpol-about-protecting-religious-art.cfm.
“Crime Areas: Works of Art—Frequently Asked Questions,” Interpol, January 2013, accessed April 11, 2016,
“37 Religious Items Stolen from Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2012, accessed April 11, 2016,
“Thief Flees with Tabernacle from South Buffalo Church,” Buffalo News, March 18, 2015, accessed April 11, 2016,
“Organized Corruption: Stolen Religious Art is International Trade,” Catholic News Service, March 10, 2006, accessed April 11, 2016,
10 Nick Tolson, “Watch Our Churches,” Professional Security Magazine Online, November 28, 2001, accessed April 11, 2016,