March 19th, 2013

The wheels of justice: the Isabella Stewart Gardner perps

It was a spectacular art heist, memorable even today, twenty-three years later: the theft of thirteen works of art valued at a grand total of five hundred million dollars, but actually priceless because they are irreplaceable.

There was this rare Vermeer:

Jan Vermeer's "The Concert," oil on canvas, painted circa 1658-1660, was one of the 13 paintings sto..

And this Rembrandt:


In stolen police uniforms, they came to the museum one evening and rang the buzzer for the guards to let them in. Then they tied the guards up, disabled the video system, and went about their 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, and a double portrait titled A Lady and Gentleman in Black. From an easel by the windows, they lifted The Concert, 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. 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…

There were many false sightings of the works, but they have never been found. The world of black market art is vast and the thieves are often hugely successful:

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.

In recent years, big-ticket paintings have become a substitute for cash, passing from hand to hand as collateral for arms, drugs or other contraband, or for laundering money from criminal enterprises. “It would appear that changes in the banking laws have driven the professional thieves into the art world,” says Smith of the Art Loss Register. “With tighter banking regulations, it has become difficult for people to put big chunks of money in financial institutions without getting noticed,” she explains. “So now thieves go out and steal a painting.”

Read the whole thing; it’s really quite fascinating.

But that article was written in 2005, and today the Gardner thieves have been named. Or actually, they haven’t been named, although the FBI says it knows their names and that they are members of a large New England-based art theft ring.

Why so mum? Here’s why:

The statute of limitations has since run out on the theft and officials have said naming the suspects would be “imprudent,” given the continuing effort to recover the art work. DesLauriers said the announcement today, on the 23rd anniversary of the heist, was intended to increase public awareness, possibly leading to the artwork being found.

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence in the years after the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft,” DesLauriers said…

Although the statute of limitations has run out, anyone in possession of the paintings could still be held criminally liable, according to U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

Authorities urged those who are in possession of the art to turn it in, whether they leave it at a church, go through an attorney, or find another way to anonymously return it.

“As we have said in the past, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will consider the possibility of immunity from criminal prosecution for information that leads to the return of the paintings based on the set of facts and circumstances brought to our attention.

So the statute of limitations has run out on the perpetrators, but not on the accessories after the fact, the buyers (who may or may not know of the illegal provenance of the works, although common sense tells us they of course do know)? This seems backwards to me. A crime of this magnitude should have a longer period in which it can be prosecuted. And by using the word “magnitude” I’m not just talking about the monetary value, although that’s part of it. This is a crime that robs us all of the chance to see works that are part of the world heritage of great art.

I’m guessing that the owners of the art will not be coming forward and returning the paintings, with such a tepid offer of possible immunity. First of all, they will lose the money they’ve invested in the art, which was probably a pretty penny. Second of all, they almost certainly knew the art was stolen when they bought it and do not care. No, this case will only be cracked if the FBI finds who the buyers are and arrests them. As for the perps, they’ve been laughing all the way to the bank.

Except they probably don’t use banks.

Certainly not ones in Cyprus—not anymore, anyway.

6 Responses to “The wheels of justice: the Isabella Stewart Gardner perps”

  1. roc scssrs Says:

    Yeah, I saw the Rembrandt the other day in a hoagie shop in South Philly. The owner says it fell off a truck.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    roc scssrs: yes, a turnip truck.

    Although I don’t suppose they have those in Philly.

  3. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    This story dredges up memories of “The Eiger Sanction.” Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, professor of art and sometime assassin, had such a lust for great art that he did not hesitate to buy it in the “aftermarket.” Hemlock was a fictional character, but apparently such collectors are out there. The fact that such collectors exist is amazing to me. But then my idea of great art runs along the lines of Norman Rockwell. And I have a healthy fear of spending time in prison.

  4. RandomThoughts Says:

    I had the good fortune to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum about 8 years ago and found it fascinating. The spots where the purloined art hung have been left empty. Gardner’s will stipulated that nothing be changed in the collection (everything, even the lighting, has to remain as it was during her lifetime). So those empty spaces will remain forever, unless somehow someday the art is returned.

  5. Don Janousek Says:

    If only Columbo was still with us.

    The garage at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port would be the first place he would look.

    “Uh, Mr. Kennedy, just one more thing….”

  6. chuck Says:

    If I were going to steal from the Gardner collection I’d take the Botticellis. Photographs don’t capture the vivid colors in of the originals.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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