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.
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.
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.
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.