“Lost art doesn’t fully explain the power of the Gardner case, why so many visit the museum to see the empty frames, why dozens of authors, artists, and academics have thrown themselves at the caper’s mystery. When I spoke to Gardner obsessives, they couldn’t quite explain it either; they always talked about the theft as something intensely personal, often searching for metaphors in the way that people do when they want to comprehend something that is incomprehensible. Some say the theft is like having something ripped from their soul. Others compare the burglary to the death of a family member. ‘Imagine you can never hear a Verdi Requiem or a Beethoven Symphony again. Just erased. Imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Erased.” – Ulrich Boser
These are some of the reactions to the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early morning hours of today’s date in 1990 – 25 years ago today. The thieves calmly walked off with artistic masterpieces valued at more than 500 MILLION dollars. And the crime remains unsolved; the art un-recovered down to the present day. And despite countless tips, leads and hopes raised quite recently, according to the Boston Globe, the world is no closer to recovering these elusive works of art than it was some twenty years ago.
Mrs. Gardner and Her Museum
One could scarcely conjure up a more eccentric character than Isabella Stewart Gardner. Raised among the very upper crust of Boston Society in the late 19’th Century, Mrs. Gardner cut a very odd figure in that world wherein women were expected to be demure, pleasant and pretty, and nothing else. But Mrs. Gardner was in this world for adventure, and made no bones about it. Her face was rather plain, but she had a remarkable figure (as captured by John Singer Sargent above), and her sense of fun was unbounded. She used to gamble at racing cars, the horse track and even staged a boxing match in her living room. “Win as though you’re used to it,” she used to say, “and lose as though you like it.” Small wonder then that she freely indulged her life-long passion for art. She began planning her legacy museum in 1898, and spent the rest of her life lovingly stocking it with one of the finest art collections ever to be assembled into private hands, and left it to the people of Boston on her death in 1924 at the age of 83.
Two “Policemen” Demand Entrance 25 Years Ago
It was late on the night of a typically raucous St. Patrick’s Day for the city of Boston. At about 1:15 am two men posing as police officers buzzed the side entrance doorway to the museum and said to the guard on the night shift “Police. Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” The security guard was suspicious, but let the two men in. They asked if there were any other guards present. There were. “Get him down here.” the policeman ordered. The other guard appeared and the two guards were promptly hand cuffed, had their eyes and their mouth covered with duct tape and were then chained to basement fixtures, This was all that these men had to do to cut off the Gardner Museum from the rest of the world. And for the next nearly 90 minutes they had the entire museum at their disposal. The thieves only encountered one other obstacle: at 1:48 am one of them set off a motion detector in one of the rooms, but this was quickly silenced.
The Gardner Thieves Steal Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet…
The first item the thieves went for was “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (below) by the immortal Dutch artist Rembrandt
Harmenszoon van Rijn known to the world simply as Rembrandt (1606 – 1669). This is the only seascape by the master painter into which he mischievously painted himself along with Christ and his disciples fighting for survival. The thieves pulled the painting down from the wall smashed it from its frame, and then pulled out a blade and savagely cut it from its stretcher. They give the same treatment to “A Lady and Gentleman in Black”, also attributed to Rembrandt. They next went and purloined “The Concert” (below) by the Dutch
painter Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). A delicate and very detailed work by this man about whom very little is known, and whose output is therefore quite limited. Many art historians refer to Vermeer’s works as still lifes with people. This was taken by the intruders that night. Also taken were “Chez Tortoni” (below) by Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883), as well as other works… odd selections such as an ancient Chinese goblet and the Eagle finial from an Imperial Napoleonic flag. And this is one of the most puzzling
aspects of the case: in order to get to the Eagle, the thieves passed by much more important and valuable items nearby by Raphael and Boticelli. It was as if they knew nothing about the value of art, but they clearly knew how to pull off the theft well enough. They were neither edgy nor nervous, and didn’t use excessive violence on the security guards. They just calmly went about their business, And they had clearly familiarized themselves with the museum’s security systems. They made two trips to a waiting vehicle to load up their loot, and then left. They had been in the Gardner for a total of 81 minutes. Thirteen items were stolen in all.
The Investigation Over the Years…
And this is where this story quickly becomes a dizzying run through countless dead-ends and tips that seemed tantalizing enough but which have lead nowhere. I’ve read many articles in the web site for the Boston Globe. I’ve read many other articles on the nature of the shadowy world of art theft. I’ve read for example the book quoted at the top of this posting by Ulrich Boser, in which the investigation first was taken up by the great stolen art sleuth Harold Smith. Ultimately
Smith was unable in his waning health to locate the stolen items. There was talk of a connection to the notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, and suggestions of a turf war over possession of the Gardner works with the Irish Republican Army. But Bulger was captured in 2011, and the IRA has since gone over largely to peaceful governance. Still the Gardner works are missing. There was a promising tipster in 1994, but his tips and his contact dried up. The FBI confidently announced in 2013 that it knew who was behind it. An aging conman named Robert Gentile was thought to have some knowledge of the Gardner thefts; maybe they were hidden beneath a garden shed in his backyard (above). But as of March 11, 2015 this too, has lead nowhere.
The Frustration of Having No End….
This has been a tremendously frustrating story for the Director of the Gardner Museum Anne Hawley to deal with, for legions of art lovers to endure, for investigators to follow, and a very frustrating subject for me to write a posting about. This was one of the very first items on which I planned to write. In fact it was the very first Blog subject for which I purchased and read an entire book. Mr. Boser’s superb book was an introduction to this murky topic. But it has remained murky ever since
March 18, 1990, since the publication of Mr. Boser’s book in 2009, and it is still, at 25 years and counting still unsolved, the works still missing. Mrs. Gardner’s wonderful museum still has the empty frames in place to remind us of her missing children. Legions of art lovers… of devotee’s of Vermeer and Rembrandt still are left to stare into empty spaces where some of their most beloved works once hung. Anne Hawley took over the reigns as the Gardner Director six weeks before the thefts, and despite her efforts to recover the stolen items (pictured above, a news conference on the thefts) as well as her other fine work as Director, her tenure seems destined to be marked by this tragedy. Meanwhile, the Gardner Museum has valued the stolen works at 500 million dollars, and has offered 5 million dollars reward for information leading to the return of the artwork. And to this day, the empty frame of “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” remains (the picture of which is at the top of this posting), waiting for its subject to return.
Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigation should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Gardner Heist” by Ulrich Boser, Harper Collins Publisher, 2009
The Boston Globe has many articles dealing with this subject in addition to the two to which I refer above. A fairly comprehensive listing of them can be found at:
Further on-line resources consulted: