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Lax security cited in artworks’ disappearance

Valuable prints have been reported missing or misfiled from the Copley Square branch of the Boston Public Library.
Valuable prints have been reported missing or misfiled from the Copley Square branch of the Boston Public Library.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

For more than four decades, Sinclair Hitchings was responsible for the care and protection of the Boston Public Library’s massive print collection, stored in a cavernous room at the central branch that only four employees, including himself, were allowed to enter.

A log book was used to record every visit employees made to the print stacks, where masterworks are stored in boxes that are clearly marked, such as “Rembrandt prints,” said Hitchings, who was “keeper of the prints” from 1961 to 2005.

The disclosure this week that two prints valued at more than $600,000 are missing from the library, possibly for as long as a year, has rankled Hitchings, who believes the library has relaxed its security protocols over the past decade.

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“I see a laxity of control, and I see that the library is out of touch with the world of prints,” said Hitchings, adding that he was disturbed by reports that as many as a dozen members of the library staff were allowed into the room.

Hitchings said it appeared that “access [security] was sufficiently lax that somebody could get into the print stacks and say, ‘Hey, look here’s a box marked Rembrandt and a box marked Dürer.’ ”

Boston police, the FBI, and the US attorney’s office are investigating the disappearance of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving “Adam and Eve,” valued at an estimated $600,000, and an etching, Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre,” valued at $20,000 to $30,000.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Melina Schuler, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Library, has declined to provide details of the library’s security protocols for the print collection, including how many employees had access to the room.

A library employee familiar with the print room told the Globe that 10 to 20 employees had access to the room. Another person with knowledge of the protocols said fewer than 10 were allowed entry, but could not be more specific. Both declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

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Schuler said a library employee learned on April 8 that the Dürer print was missing, prompting an internal search of places where it might have been misfiled. A week later, staff discovered that the Rembrandt print was missing, and the police commissioner and mayor were notified, she said.

The library’s keeper of special collections, Susan L. Glover, was placed on paid administrative leave on April 20, according to Schuler. Glover has not been charged in connection with the case. She has not responded to requests for comment.

At the heart of the investigation is whether the missing prints were stolen or simply misfiled in the library’s collection of 200,000 prints.

Earlier in the week, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said police were looking into the possibility that library employees stole the artwork.

When patrons ask to view items from the collection, authorized employees retrieve them from the print room and deliver them to a reading room. Patrons, who must show identification and are prohibited from bringing bags into the room, view the items while being monitored by librarians.

On Friday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said, “It seems there’s been a major breakdown somewhere along the way . . . clearly we have some problems with the library.”

The mayor said he will meet Tuesday with the library’s president, Amy E. Ryan, and the chairman of its board of trustees, Jeffrey B. Rudman, and wants answers about security protocols and how the prints were able to vanish without detection for so long.

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“What’s in place now to prevent something like this from happening in the future?” Walsh asked.

City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, who filed an order for a hearing about the missing prints and the library’s security protocols after reading about the disappearance in the newspaper, said many councilors are eager for answers.

The hearing, to be held during the second week of June, will enable councilors to ask Ryan and others about how the valuable collections are protected.

“They’re not answering questions now,” Murphy said. “What is the security? What is the protocol? . . . This is the stuff that I’m going to ask when I get them in.”

Councilors, Murphy said, are trying to “do what we can to close the barn door after the horse has left.”

Recently, the library enlisted an independent security firm to work with its staff to assess security systems in the print department and associated collections and to make recommendations for upgrades, Schuler said.

The library is also conducting an item-by-item inventory of its print collection to determine whether any other items are missing.

“I think if the library held a thorough inventory, they might find some things are missing or they are even richer than they thought they were,” Hitchings said.

Laura Crimaldi of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Nestor Ramos can be reached at Nestor.Ramos@globe.com.