In fiction, art thefts conjure up an image of romantic daring: Black-gloved thieves in the cloak of darkness dismantle an elaborate alarm system and stalk through a museum, plucking priceless works of art from the walls with the precision of a farmer choosing the ripest berries.

But last Wednesday in Paris, four art thefts showed just how unconventional the plucking can get. At the Louvre, arguably the most famous art museum in the world, thieves cut Renoir's "Portrait of a Seated Woman" from its frame during operating hours. The same method was used to steal Ernest Hebert's "Portrait of Monaluccia" from a museum named after the artist. "Les Moulins de la Glacie`re" by Paul Huet was lifted from its hook in the Carnavalet Museum sometime during the day. On Thursday, officials at the Louvre announced that a dozen Egyptian artifacts had been stolen from a glass case, presumably on the same day that the Renoir was taken.

Jacques Sallois, director of French national museums, reacted swiftly to what has been described as an art "crisis" by permanently closing five small museums, including the Hebert, to individual visitors. The museums will remain open only to groups holding reservations.

Last week's thefts, coupled with the record heist of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March, have area museum officials thinking a lot about security and the public's access to precious art.

"I'm fearful that we will withdraw into a kind of zone where the public doesn't have as much accessibility to the art," said Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Like stanchions that keep people further away, paintings behind glass, security devices that become terribly intrusive ... it all comes together to make for a museum visit that is less than we would hope for."

"I have the impression that European museums in general have a much lower ratio of guards to public than most American museums," said Laughlin Phillips, director of the Phillips Collection. "You can go through room after room without seeing a guard. The ones you do see are often civil servants who are sitting there doing their knitting. I think the American museums in general are much more conscious of this, and the state of security systems has come a long way.

"Naturally every time something happens like this you ask yourself, 'Could it happen here?' " Phillips said. "And you redouble your vigilance. Security systems can never replace the human element. We do have a great many guards and they're in sight of the paintings almost continually."

"A theft like that shakes up the museum world," said Darrell Willson, deputy administrator at the National Gallery of Art. "We immediately hold roll call. The security director points out exactly how it happened, and reminds {the security staff members} what they're there for. Every person who comes to the gallery is a visitor, and you point out how to differentiate between a suspicious person and one who is just here looking at the art."

"It's a constant concern," said Lehman. "It's one of the constant concerns on the museum profession. The effect of a theft like this is devastating because it can affect long-term loans and endowments."

So in the eyes of many, the public pays the price of stolen art: Fewer museums are willing to lend pieces unless Orwellian security and gargantuan insurance coverage are absolutely guaranteed, and access to the works may be limited. But Willson sees a smaller group of people as the most affected. "Most of the people who work in a museum work there for a specific reason. Certain paintings are like a friend to them," he said. "It's like losing a member of the family when they're stolen."

Meet the Beatle Politicians usually aren't fazed when it comes to meeting celebrities. After all, it's part of the job. But at RFK Stadium Friday night, Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) had to admit he was "honored" and "excited" to have a few words with Paul McCartney at a pre-concert reception where the ex-Beatle was honored by Friends of the Earth for his environmental efforts. Evans commended Mr. Mac for including the environmental organization in his world tour (it's permitted to distribute information and merchandise at all McCartney concerts and is written up in the tour program). He also invited Linda McCartney for a personal tour of the Capitol when she returns in the fall to promote her vegetarian cookbook.

"I saw the Beatles in 1965 in Chicago," said Evans, who has seen four shows on the current McCartney tour. "Most of my early friendships were built around the Beatles' music."

And what did the living pop legend have to say to Evans during their brief encounter? "He told me to get some of my friends down on Capitol Hill to do something about the environment."