The Biggest Art Theft in American History

Historical Art Theft Leaves Empty Frames

A trip to Boston included a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see paintings by Sargent, Whistler and Zorn. (Members of The Artist’s Road can see the complete article here: Plein Air Painting in the Boston Public Garden).

The museum buildings consist of Mrs. Gardner’s fabulous mansion and a newer, modern glass addition blended together. It is worth the trip to the museum just to see and walk around her house, which features a three-story garden atrium at the center.

Designed by William T. Sears and completed in 1903, Fenway Court, as it was called during Mrs. Gardner’s day, is in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, and was built specifically to house Mrs. Gardner’s remarkable collection of art, furniture, and artifacts from around the world. Except that, there are empty frames on some of the walls.

Gardner Museum art theft
An empty frame at the Gardner Museum.

Mrs. Gardner was devoted to the idea that art was powerfully redemptive and stipulated in her will that no changes could be made in the galleries. Nothing in the original house could be added or taken away, not even a bamboo window shade.

Even the dim lighting in the galleries has remained the same. Any changes would require that the entire collection be sold off and the proceeds donated to Harvard University!

March 18, 1990 was the night two thieves dressed as policemen talked their way in to the museum after hours, overpowered the two guards and stole 13 of the world’s most valuable oil paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Flinck–estimated to be worth $500 million dollars today.

The FBI has been chasing leads on this art theft for decades, and until recently, no one who knew anything about the thieves or the whereabouts of the paintings would talk about it.

Double the Reward

The Gardner Heist is still one of the largest art crimes in U.S. history. Since the theft, there has been a $5 million dollar reward for information or the return of the art.

The museum followed a lead trying to recover the lost Vermeer painting, The Concert. Unfortunately, that was a dead end. Since then the reward for information has been doubled to $10 million.

Vermeer | oil painting | art theft | Gardner Museum art theft
Vermeer, The Concert (circa 1664). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The reward is one of the largest offered by a private institution. The museum worries that the paintings have either deteriorated or been destroyed since the theft though.

To keep them in good condition, whoever has them would have had to take pains to store them out of the light at no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity for 23 years.

Following New Leads, a Detective on the Case

Solving such a famous art heist involving 13 different pieces of art isn’t an easy task. A Dutch private investigator has taken on the challenge.

Arthur Brand is responsible for recovering many high-profile stolen artworks. He is currently following fresh leads and believes that the paintings will be recovered.

Dutch Westfries Museum director Ad Geerding (L) and art detective Arthur Brand (R) celebrate during a ceremony where five stolen paintings were restored. Photo credit OLAF KRAAK/AFP/Getty Images

Brand told artnet news that, “It’s the holy grail. It’s the biggest case you can imagine.”

Brand has become known as the Indiana Jones of the art world. He has had quite a few successes in solving other art theft cases. He helped return multiple paintings stolen from the Netherlands’ Westfries Museum and Sheringa Museum of Realist Art.

“I’ve cracked some huge cases,” Brand boasts. “Locating the [stolen art] is almost always the hardest part. You have to ask around in the underworld—sometimes it takes years—and then you have to negotiate.”

The FBI and Anthony Amore, security director of the Gardner museum, believe that the stolen pieces have remained in the U.S. Brand claims that he has traced the paintings to Ireland. Further tips suggest connections with the Netherlands. He is exploring all possibilities to recover the priceless art.

“It’s not about who did it anymore,” added Brand. “It’s about getting these pieces back. [The art is] world heritage!”

For more information on the stolen Gardner Museum paintings, including a list of the stolen art, see the FBI Art Theft website.

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.