Ripped from the Walls (and the Headlines)

Fifteen years after the greatest art theft in modern history the mystery may be unraveling

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At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day stragglers wobbled home for the night, a buzzer sounded inside the IsabellaStewartGardnerMuseum. One of two hapless museum guards answered it, saw what he thought were two Boston policemen outside the Palace Road entrance, and opened the door on the biggest art theft in U.S. history.

The intruders, who had apparently filched the uniforms, overpowered the guards and handcuffed them. They wrapped the guards’ heads in duct tape, leaving nose holes for breathing, and secured the men to posts in the basement. After disarming the museum’s video cameras, the thieves proceeded to take apart one of this country’s finest private art collections, one painstakingly assembled by the flamboyant Boston socialite Isabella Gardner at the end of the 19th century and housed since 1903 in the Venetian-style palazzo she built to display her treasures “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

But as the poet Robert Burns warned long ago, the best laid schemes of mice and men “gang aft agley”—an insight no less applicable to heiresses. Less than a century elapsed before Mrs. Gardner’s high-minded plans for eternity began to crumble. Up a flight of marble stairs on the second floor, the thieves went to work in the Dutch Room, where they yanked one of Rembrandt’s earliest (1629) self-portraits off the wall. They tried to pry the painted wooden panel out of its heavy gilded frame, but when Rembrandt refused to budge, they left him on the floor, a little roughed up but remarkably sturdy at age 376. They crossed worn brown tiles to the south side of the room and cut two other Rembrandts out of their frames, including the Dutch master’s only known seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (opposite), and a double portrait titled A Lady and Gentleman in Black (Table of Contents, p. 6). From an easel by the windows, they lifted The Concert (p. 97), a much-loved oil by Johannes Vermeer, and a Govaert Flinck landscape, long thought to have been painted by Rembrandt, whose monogram had been forged on the canvas. Before the intruders departed, they snapped up a bronze Chinese beaker from the Shang era (1200-1100 b.c.) and a Rembrandt etching, a self-portrait the size of a postage stamp.

A hundred paces down the corridor and through two galleries brimming with works by Fra Angelico, Bellini, Botticelli and Raphael, the thieves stopped in a narrow hallway known as the Short Gallery. There, under the painted gaze of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, they helped themselves to five Degas drawings. And in a move that still baffles most investigators, they tried to wrestle a flag of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from its frame and, failing, settled for its bronze eagle finial. Then, back on the ground floor, the thieves made one last acquisition, a jaunty Manet oil portrait of a man in a top hat, titled Chez Tortoni (p. 103). By some miracle, they left what is possibly the most valuable painting in the collection, Titian’s Europa, untouched in its third-floor gallery.

The raiders’ leisurely assault had taken nearly 90 minutes. Before departing the museum that night, they left the guards with a promise: “You’ll be hearing from us in about a year.”

But the guards never heard a word, and 15 years later the case remains unsolved, despite wide-ranging probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assists from Scotland Yard, museum directors, friendly dealers, Japanese and French au- thorities, and a posse of private investigators; despite hundreds of interviews and new offers of immunity; despite the Gardner Museum’s promise of a $5 million reward; despite a coded message the museum flashed to an anonymous tipster through the financial pages of the Boston Globe; despite oceans of ink and miles of film devoted to the subject; despite advice from psychics and a tip from an informant who claims that one of the works is rumbling around in a trailer to avoid detection.

There have been enough false sightings of the paintings— in furniture stores, seedy antiques marts and tiny apartments— to turn Elvis green with envy. In the most tantalizing of these, a Boston Herald reporter was driven to a warehouse in the middle of the night in 1997 to see what purported to be Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The reporter, Tom Mashberg, had been covering the theft and was allowed to view the painting briefly by flashlight. When he asked for proof of authenticity, he was given a vial of paint chips that were later confirmed by experts to be Dutch fragments from the 17th century—but not from the Rembrandt seascape. Then the painting, whether real or fake, melted from view again. Since then, there has been no sign of the missing works, no arrests, no plausible demands for ransom. It is as if the missing stash—now valued as high as $500 million— simply vanished into the chilly Boston night, swallowed up in the shadowy world of stolen art.

That world, peopled by small-time crooks, big-time gangsters, unscrupulous art dealers, convicted felons, money launderers, drug merchants, gunrunners and organized criminals, contributes to an underground market of an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion a year. While the trade in stolen art does not rival the black market in drugs and guns, it has become a significant part of the illicit global economy.

Some 160,000 items—including paintings, sculptures and other cultural objects—are currently listed by the Art Loss Register, an international organization established in 1991 to track lost or stolen art around the world. Among the objects on their list today are the 13 items snatched from the GardnerMuseum as well as 42 other Rembrandt paintings, 83 Rembrandt prints and an untitled painting attributed to Vermeer that has been missing since World War II. The register records more than 600 stolen Picassos and some 300 Chagalls, most of them prints. An additional 10,000 to 12,000 items are added each year, according to Alexandra Smith, operations director for the London-based registry, a company financed by insurers, leading auction houses, art dealers and trade associations.

Such registries, along with computer-based inventories maintained by the FBI and Interpol, the international police agency, make it virtually impossible for thieves or dealers to sell a purloined Van Gogh, Rembrandt or any other wellknown work on the open market. Yet the trade in stolen art remains a brisk one.


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