The Biggest Art Theft in American History

16 Sep 2013

Our recent painting trip to Boston included a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see some old friends painted by Sargent, Whistler, Zorn and others. (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 in her wonderful 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 all over the world. Except that, there are empty frames on some of the walls.

An empty frame at the Gardner Museum.
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 some of the world's most valuable oil paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Flinck--estimated to be worth $500 million dollars today. The F.B.I. has been chasing leads on this theft for over two decades, and until recently, no one who knew anything about the thieves or the whereabouts of the paintings would talk about it.

This Rembrandt painting was one of 13 works stolen from the museum.
This Rembrandt painting was one of 13 works stolen from the museum.

Just this last March, new leads came in that led the F.B.I. to report that they now know who the thieves are, but the statute of limitations prevents them from making any arrests. But, where are the paintings? Over the years since, rumors have circulated that the paintings were moved to Philadelphia and Connecticut through organized crime circles, but so far none have turned up in police raids on suspects' residences. While the men involved in the theft may well have been criminals, there apparently was no criminal mastermind like the fictional Dr. No who ordered the "acquisition" of favorite paintings for his private lair. Like so many high-profile art robberies, famous paintings are difficult to resell because the buyer runs the risk of being discovered by anyone who recognizes the work.

The reward poster concerning the stolen works.
The reward poster concerning the stolen works.

Today, despite a $5 million dollar reward, believed to be the largest ever offered by a private institution, these priceless works of art remain missing. The real worry is that they either have deteriorated badly or have been destroyed. 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% humidity for 23 years. Still, there is hope that one day they may refill those empty frames on the walls of the Gardner Museum. Although the F.B.I. doesn't want to "hinder its investigation" by exposing the names of the men they believe stole the paintings, there are tantalizing hints that they may be close to finding the art as well. In the words of Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, "I think we're all optimistic that one day soon the paintings will be returned to their rightful place." If they are, we're making another trip to Boston.

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

We hope that you will join us on The Artist's Road  for more interesting articles, unique products and step-by-step demonstrations.

--John and Ann

 


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