Notorious Art Heists: Thieves Love Rembrandt

Last week I went with my friend Alane to hear Anthony M. Amore talk about art theft in general and the Gardner Museum Heist in particular at the Roslindale Library.  Traffic was bad and we were worried that we would miss the beginning of his talk but we actually walked in just as Mr. Amore was being introduced.  Perfect timing!

The Gardner Museum Heist

Stealing Rembrandts, Anthony M. Amore, Gartner Museum Heist, stolen artAnthony Amore is the author, along with Tom Mashberg, of “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists.”  Like most folks in Massachusetts, I remember the 1990 Gardner Museum Heist but I didn’t know that two of the most valuable paintings ever stolen were included in the theft.  That’s one of the facts we heard, along with the news that the Gardner Heist was the biggest property theft anywhere, ever.

Taken were 13 works of art, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer—one of only 34 in existence–and a portrait by Edouard Manet.  Vermeer’s “The Concert” is the single most valuable painting ever stolen, followed by Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only seascape he ever painted.

Here are some more things that we learned:

  • 90% of all museum art thefts use insider information
  • 99% of art thieves do it only one time
  • Rembrandt is the artist whose works are stolen most frequently
  • Massachusetts is one of the top three states for art theft, along with New York and California
  • There are no art buyers for the Mafia
Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, Gardnet Museum Heist

Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee

And here are some frequently asked questions:

Q: Why do thieves steal masterpieces from museums?

A: Because the paintings have a high value and stealing from a museum is seen as easier than robbing a bank or a diamond exchange.

Q:  Why do 99% of all thieves steal works of art only once?

A:  Because you can’t sell them once you have them.  There are no buyers because the paintings are recognized instantly.  No museum, dealer, or collector will touch them.

Q:  What about billionaires with secret art collections?

A:  They exist only in fiction.

The Myth of the Millionaire Collector

James Bond, Dr. No, Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

James Bond admires the Duke of Wellington

These fictional collectors abound, however:

  • There’s Ian Fleming’s “Dr. No.” In the movie, Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) has Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington in his island headquarters.  The painting was stolen from London’s National Gallery after the book was written but right before the movie began filming.
  • There’s Trevanian’s “The Eiger Sanction,” in which art professor Dr. Jonathan Hemlock collects paintings he has purchased from the black market.  He displays them in a special gallery under his home in a renovated Gothic church on Long Island.  In the movie, Dr. Hemlock is played by a ridiculously young Clint Eastwood.
  • In the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” millionaire banker and Beacon Hill resident Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) masterminds the theft of Claude Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and then matches wits with an insurance investigator played by Rene Russo.
  • The granddaddy of them all is probably Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”  The grand salon of his submarine, the Nautilus, is furnished with ancient and modern masterpieces, although their provenance is uncertain.

The only people who came even close to doing this  in reality were Hildebrand Gurlitt, who used Nazi troops to steal masterpieces, and bequeathed the treasures to his son Cornelius.  Until he was discovered last year, Cornelius Gurlitt lived like a hermit among his hoarded artworks in an apartment in Germany.  He died last week and left the treasures to the Kunstmuseum Bern, which says they will return any Nazi-looted artworks to the heirs of the original owners.

FAQs on Art Heists

Q:  Why do authors and screenwriters use the trope of the wealthy collector who savors his purloined art collection is secret?

A:  That’s so much more dramatic than the reality.

Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, the Thomas Crown Affair, Thomas Crown

Claude Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk

Most Crooks are Dumb

Most criminal are not millionaires, masterminds, or even well educated. They don’t take Art Appreciation, History of Western Civilization, or Introduction to European Art in college. They typically don’t go to college.

All they know is that museums house paintings that are worth a lot of money and museum security is probably not as good as a bank’s.  That means they’re less likely to get shot. So they decide to steal something, but what?  Well, they have heard of Rembrandt: other artists, not so much. They pull off a heist and then discover that they can’t fence the paintings or get anyone to buy them. The best they can do is cut a deal to reduce their sentence by returning the artwork. An insurance investigator like Rene Russo’s Catherine Banning would walk all over them.  This is not the stuff of blockbuster movies.

Still, there is no getting around the fact that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s stolen artworks have been missing since March 18, 1990.  Despite the $5 million reward just for information as to their whereabouts, no one has seen them since and no one has offered them as collateral in a plea bargain. Anthony Amore has been working the case for eight and a half years and he gets leads every day–but the artworks are still missing.

All he wants—all any of us want—is for the paintings and drawings to be returned.  Maybe someday this stash, like the trove of the recently deceased Cornelius Gurlitt, will be found. We can only hope.

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