In the wee hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, tied up the night security guards, and went from room to room looting paintings and other items. They made off with a haul of priceless treasures that included Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer’s The Concert, Manet’s Chez Tortoni, and a number of drawings by Degas. Paintings were ripped from the walls and smashed on the floors; canvases were roughly cut away from their stretchers rather than being removed intact from the frames. Lax security at the hundred-year-old building, designed after a Renaissance Venetian palazzo, gave them a leisurely 81 minutes to do their work, not to mention their astute timing on a wild Saturday night of St. Patrick’s festivities. They made some odd choices; they removed a large Rembrandt self-portrait from the wall, but then left it behind leaning against a cabinet. They overlooked Titian’s Rape of Europa, a Boticelli, and two Raphaels, but instead spent time trying to unscrew and open a case containing a far less valuable Napoleonic battle flag (rather than simply smashing the glass), snatching only the exposed eagle-shaped finial after apparently giving up in frustration. They knew where the security office was and removed the tapes from the security cameras. Guards arriving in the morning discovered the heist, which remains unsolved to this day.
Although there have been surprisingly many comparable thefts, the Gardner is considered the most expensive art theft, and possibly the single largest property theft in modern history. The works are today collectively valued at anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion, with perhaps half of that representing the Vermeer alone; there is a $10 million reward for information leading to their recovery. A new Netflix miniseries, “This is a Robbery”, takes viewers through the rooms of the Gardner Museum, where the haunting empty frames still hang on the walls to memorialize the lost paintings and explores the many strange avenues of this still-unsolved case. The paintings may have deteriorated or been destroyed after three decades—or they could be sitting safely in a storage unit or an attic somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.
It is estimated that after arms dealing and drug traffic, art theft is the most valuable criminal enterprise in the modern world. Artworks are stolen by nations and armies at war, as well as everyone from unscrupulous experts and dealers to master thieves, disgruntled security guards, organized criminals, and ordinary people who find themselves in a museum gazing at a painting with no one else around at the moment. Simon Houpt’s Museum of the Missing (2006) and Noah Charney’s The Museum of Lost Art (2018) delve into the many strange but true stories of history’s most infamous art thefts, both recovered and still missing.
Charney begins with the 19th-century master thief and international con man Adam Worth, born in Germany and raised in America. One of his most notorious thefts was a stealthy second-story break-in at Agnew’s Art Gallery in London one night in 1876, where he made off with Gainsborough’s torrid Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The painting (of one of Lady Diana Spencer’s forebears) was on display at the gallery while an American banker concluded his purchase of it for 10,000 guineas, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Worth hoped to ransom the painting back to the gallery in exchange for getting his brother bailed out of jail. When negotiations fell through, he kept the painting and is said to have fallen in love with it, keeping it for years under his bed. Decades later when he ran afoul of the law he finally brokered its return via William Pinkerton, a detective who respected his adversary. Adam Worth was Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Professor Moriarty, nemesis to Sherlock Holmes and the “Napoleon of Crime”, a reference to Worth’s diminutive stature.
Cat burglars still rappel in through museum skylights, like the ones who broke into the Montreal Museum of Art in 1972 to steal 18 paintings including a Rembrandt, a Delacroix, and a Rubens, or the perpetrators of the 1993 break-in at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet where six Picassos and two Braques were taken. But many more recent heists were done in broad daylight, with thieves taking advantage of poor museum security and the confusion provided by crowds. Again in Stockholm in 2000, men with pistols and a machine gun grabbed two Renoirs and a Rembrandt from the Nationalmuseum and sped away in a powerboat; the thieves were eventually arrested, and the paintings recovered through later arrests of international drug traffickers. As the market value of works by canonical artists has skyrocketed in recent decades, they have become enticing to criminals as collateral to buy drugs or guns. The stately Russborough House in the countryside near Dublin holds a storied collection that has been robbed four times since 1974, often by IRA-affiliated thieves seeking collateral for arms purchases.
A popular rationale for stealing artworks is to have a "get out of jail free card" that can be used to bargain away future prison time. That may have been one of the motives at work in the Gardner heist, whose likeliest suspects are or were affiliated with Italian organized crime in Boston. Of course, the reality of trying to ransom or sell a stolen Old Master is trickier than it sounds, as Houpt elucidates:
“Paintings, you tell yourself, are compact and easy to steal. So you find yourself with a speedboat and snatch a $36-million Rembrandt with a couple of buddies. Within a day, images of the painting appear in police and private databases. The theft makes headlines around the world, from the New York Times to the Bangladesh Times, which is great if all you want is fame, but not so promising if you want to flip the piece for some actual cash. And in the only market where a $36-million Rembrandt would actually fetch $36 million, no one is going to touch the property.”
FBI and Interpol agents monitor underground channels to try to catch word of prospective sales of stolen works, and then pose as buyers to nab the thieves. Ransoms are hardly ever paid, a practice that authorities believe would immediately encourage copycat heists.
The planners behind the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre may have had a novel solution to this difficulty. Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia was working on the painting’s display case; he hid in a closet overnight and then spirited the painting away to his apartment. Later of course he had difficulty finding a buyer for the iconic work, and when arrested trying to sell it to the Uffizi in Florence he claimed that he was trying to repatriate it to Italy (although Da Vinci had sold it to King Francois I in 1514). More recent research suggests that he was in fact working for an Argentine con man who had planned to sell several forged copies to wealthy collectors around the world, hoping to convince them they were buying the original. When this fell through, Peruggia began trying to peddle it on his own.
Many thieves have more idiosyncratic motives. Young French waiter Stephane Breitweiser began obsessively pilfering paintings and other items while touring museums and castles in the 1990s, often with his girlfriend acting as a lookout. He amassed a huge hoard, which he crowded onto the walls of the small house he shared with his mother. When he was arrested at the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, his mother admitted to tossing dozens of priceless paintings in the nearby canal, supposedly to ‘punish’ her son but more likely to cover his tracks. The thieves who stole a Van Gogh, a Gaugain and a Blue-period Picasso from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester in 2003 left them rolled up in a tube behind a disused public toilet, where police later found them on an anonymous tip, along with a note saying they had been stolen to highlight the “woeful” security at the gallery. Unfortunately, heavy overnight rain had by then severely damaged the paintings.
Art crime experts call the popular notion that stolen masterworks most likely wind up in the clutches of a shadowy oligarch the Dr. No theory; in the 1962 film, when Sean Connery’s James Bond visits Blofeld’s underwater lair, he does a double-take at seeing Goya’s 1814 portrait of the Duke of Wellington on display. The real painting had recently made headlines after being stolen from the National Gallery in London, a crime the production designers cleverly referenced with a replica. The Goya portrait was eventually recovered in 1965 when the thief turned himself in, an eccentric retired truck driver who had stolen it in hopes of forcing the museum trustees to donate money to charity, for which cause he claimed he had merely borrowed the painting. Experts tend to doubt the Dr. No theory, pointing out that the sizable rewards (such as the $10 million for the Gardner paintings) would surely induce one of the many people who work for said nefarious tycoon to blow the whistle.
In 1990, the FBI had a single agent assigned to art theft; at the time their primary focus was organized crime. The Gardner helped call attention to the special skills needed to recover stolen art, and the FBI now has a fully staffed Art Crime Team for rapid deployment. In 2013 they held a press conference to announce that they were in the ‘final chapter’ of investigating the Gardner theft and tracking the paintings, but nothing has followed since. Poor documentation has always aided art thieves; unlike expensive cars and houses, famous artworks have long traded hands with hardly any deed or title certification, a state of affairs that the multiplicity of forgeries and alternate versions does nothing to improve. The rise of the internet permitted the development of international art registries and databases, notably the Art Loss Register, established shortly after the Gardner heist, the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art Database, as well as newer contenders like the ArtClaim Database and LAPD’s own Art Theft Detail, to say nothing of a proliferation of others that operate on a spectrum between public and private interest. Absent a single recognized authority, controversies have arisen over questionable methodologies, exorbitant ‘finders fees’ and so forth, but at least recourse has improved since the 1990s.
Museums nowadays find it difficult to strike a balance between effective and overly intrusive security measures. In 2004 pistol-brandishing thieves snatched two iconic paintings by turn-of-the-century Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, The Scream (there are several versions) and Madonna, from the Munch Museum in Oslo; after their recovery a few years later, they returned to view behind thick bulletproof glass, with metal detectors at the gallery entry. Security for artworks has not seen as much innovation as one might expect, and remains rather low-tech. Tiny GPS chips that can be attached to paintings and tracked by law enforcement are still on the technological horizon and will take years to deploy widely once developed—tech-savvy thieves will likely find ways to foil those anyway once they hit the scene. For the time being, countless masterworks reside relatively unsecured in castles, homes, and old museums, and even on the streets: Renaissance statuary abounds in public places in Rome and Florence, regularly damaged by vandals and selfie-snapping tourists.
Houpt concludes with a poignant appendix detailing the most famous still-missing stolen artworks in modern times. It is reassuring to note that several have in fact been recovered since his book’s 2006 publication, including the two Munch paintings stolen in 2004 as well as Da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder, showing the Virgin Mary and child holding a cruciform spinning distaff. Painted in 1501, it was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland in 2003 by two men posing as tourists, who overpowered their young tour guide, leaped out a window, and made off in a white Volkswagen Golf. After the convoluted machinations of its recovery, it is now on display in the better-secured National Gallery of Scotland, aiding hope that perhaps the stolen Gardner paintings will someday too depart from the annals of the lost.