Masterworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 20 years ago have never been recovered. Because of a continuing lack of security in the nation’s museums, a similar theft could occur again.By Ulrich Boser
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and then looted the institution for over an hour, stealing a dozen canvases including masterworks by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Two decades later not a single artwork has been recovered despite dozens of investigators, thousands of leads, and countless tips.
The Gardner case is one of the nation’s most haunting crime stories, not only because of the incredible value of the missing art – as much as $500 million – and the massive $5 million reward offered for their return, but also because of the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself.
A spirited, society woman, Gardner was the Jacqueline Kennedy of her day, and she saw art as something very personal, very intimate, a moment of beauty and truth to be celebrated and worshiped. Gardner wrote in her will that nothing should ever be changed in her museum, and today the empty frames still hang grimly on the walls, just as they were discovered on the night of the robbery.
Mystery is at the heart of the Gardner caper; a theme that is reflected in some of the stolen paintings themselves. For example, the thieves stole Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert,” one of only 36 works created by the Dutch master. At first glance, it features a man and two women playing music together. Study it further and you can’t tell what the relationship is between the subjects. Are they just playing music together? Is there something sexual? The painting gives no definitive answer; there is no clear solution.
The Gardner museum today serves as a reminder of the unsolved challenges of art theft, that art crime can take place at any institution, to any collector, and that even Washington’s most esteemed institutions need to do more to deter theft. A recent Government Accountability Office investigation found that the Smithsonian Institution did not have enough guards to respond to alarms or even cover entrances. In November 2006 someone managed to swipe mammalian fossils from one of the museums.
The motivations of art thieves are not always clear. Some steal because it’s easy; some steal to impress their friends. Most often, though, they steal for the money. Some years ago, a guard at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore robbed the galleries of dozens of artifacts including antique pistols and ancient Chinese snuff bottles. Some of the thefts required removing the objects and then rearranging the remaining ones to make the case look undisturbed, and it took the museum staff weeks before they discovered the heist. Police eventually recovered the works in the basement of the guard’s home.
But for all the mysteries and unknowns, it’s clear that art crime has become a serious criminal justice problem – an estimated $6 billion illegal business. The FBI recently created a national art theft team with 13 field agents and three specialized lawyers. The squad depends on having a reliable network of art world insiders, and when a curator at the Army Center of Military History in Washington recently reached out with information that a Kansas dealer was hawking a very rare Civil War flag, the FBI team immediately set up a sting. The dealer wanted a paltry $20,000 – and the agents were able to recover the work.
Still, law enforcement could do more. While art theft has become a booming criminal business, it is still not a top priority for many local police agencies, and the lack of investigative interest can result in unexpected recoveries. Stolen paintings have been discovered behind a dishwasher during a drug raid, or when an oblivious thief asks Sotheby’s to evaluate a painting. (Most auction houses use stolen art databases like the one maintained by the Art Loss Register and other companies to ensure that they do not sell stolen or looted artifacts.) Officials at the Gardner museum – and art lovers everywhere – remain guardedly optimistic that the museum’s lost Vermeer and Rembrandts will soon be returned, that the mystery of the case may one day be solved. “I’ll live in hope. I dwell in possibility,” Anne Hawley, the museum’s director, says, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson. I’ll just have to believe that the stolen paintings are still out there.
Safeguarding Your Collection
Art theft is booming, with 50,000 heists occurring worldwide each year. To protect your collection, consider the following:
Get your paperwork in order. Art isn’t like a car. It doesn’t come with boilerplate descriptions and standardized forms, so be sure to keep detailed records about your works, including measurements, materials used, etc., as well as any provenance documentation as the bill of sale.
Take pictures or a video. Every work of art is unique, and if police are going to recover your stolen canvas, they need to know what it looks like. It’s important to take pictures from every angle; often the markings on the back of a painting are key to identifying the work and proving its ownership.
A reliable security system should include motion detectors in strategic areas as well as panic alarms in the master bedroom. “Collectors should also consider attaching individual alarms to artworks worth more than $1,000,000,” says Greg Smith, Executive Vice President of Berkley Asset Protection Underwriters, which specializes in fine art insurance.
If you are robbed: Call the police and notify your insurance broker. Smith also recommends submitting a “If the piece is very unique [also] notify the dealers who sell that type of work,” Smith adds, so that they can also be on the lookout.