04 March 2013

Wikipedia and the internet-savy monument burglars

These days when we should start this year's edition of Wiki Loves Monuments (I had on my TODO to write a call for contributions, since the team is smaller) a scandal appeared: a local cable news channel aired a report about historical monuments plundered by internet-savy burglars (video and story in Romanian).
In August 2011 a historical monument, the wooden church in Urisiu de Jos was plundered. Stolen were icons and other works dating from the XVI century, valuated at over 100.000€ on the black market. In two months the band plundered a total of 8 wooden churches, historical monuments, stealing around 120 icons, valuated at over 1.000.000€.

Romania Mures Urisiu de Jos cross 135
wooden church in Urișiu de Jos, Mureș, photo by Țetcu Mircea Rareș, CC-BY-SA
The priests in charge of those churches found the scapegoat: they blame the internet. Those monuments were pretty much unknown and undocumented, except on Wikipedia, where the volunteers gathered data and images for public use. The burglars used Wikipedia to learn about the places (check the above-mentioned page, it has a bit of information and a bunch of pictures, normal, if not even low, for a historical monument). It does not matter the churches lacked locks, fences, alarms, surveillance systems (as required by law for a monument), the internet is to blame for making the information public).
Is also worth mentioning the police also used the same Wikipedia articles as the burglars, since there was no other info available for them to use, the churches didn't have even lists with the valuable objects, so police used the photos to identify the stolen icons. Still, they recovered 85 of the 120 stolen icons.
Romania Mures Urisiu de Jos iconostasis 39
wooden church in Urișiu de Jos, Mureș, photo by Țetcu Mircea Rareș, CC-BY-SA
I fear now a chilling effect, which may go two ways: on one hand, priests may be uncooperative with photographers working for Wiki Loves Monuments 2013, or for Wikipedia in general, or with any photographers interested in historical monuments (the large part of historical monuments in Romania are churches). On the other hand, photographers may be scared for getting into trouble (the Wikipedia contributor worked with the police as a witness.)

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