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Boston gallery's $500 million art theft still a mystery 25 years later

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/3/2015 (890 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Some criminals are mildly incompetent -- the kind of people who go through life pushing doors marked "pull" and wondering why they don't open.

But there are 11 empty picture frames hanging in Boston's first-rate Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that prove even thugs can get lucky, and in so doing have made this vault of delicious art renowned not so much for what hangs on its walls but for what doesn't.

FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2010 file photo, empty frames from which thieves took "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," left background, by Rembrandt and "The Concert," right foreground, by Vermeer, remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The paintings are among 13 works stolen by burglars from the museum in the early hours of March 18, 1990.

JOSH REYNOLDS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2010 file photo, empty frames from which thieves took "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," left background, by Rembrandt and "The Concert," right foreground, by Vermeer, remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The paintings are among 13 works stolen by burglars from the museum in the early hours of March 18, 1990.

Because 25 years ago, two smash-and-grab journeymen thieves stole art from the Gardner said to be worth $500 million, and did it almost as easily as boosting candy from the corner store. Their haul included works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas, jewels of the creative mind (especially the Vermeer) that have yet to find their way back to the frames from which they were torn in 1990.

What's puzzling is that these two hit-and-run crooks either couldn't tell a Picasso from a velvet Elvis or that they were told what to steal by equally unknowledgeable gangster bosses. Within the wreckage of smashed glass and shattered frames left by their aggressive rampage (they trashed the place), they left behind paintings even more valuable than they stole. This included a Titian, the single most expensive canvas in all of Beantown, and a host of other masterpieces. And it wasn't because they were rushed -- they had all night.

As investigative reporter Stephen Kurkjian points out in Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist, his literary inquest of both the robbery -- still the largest property crime in U.S. history -- and the bizarre events that preceded and followed it is terribly sad.

Kurkjian is a lawyer by training, and a longtime veteran reporter of the Boston Globe who has won three Pulitzers.

Keeping things safe costs money, and museums can become complacent -- exactly the Gardner's case, despite being told numerous times to tighten up security.

The Boston underworld heard the Gardner was lax, and two of its goons were sent to see if they could rob the place. They simply dressed up as fake cops in uniform, knocked on the door after closing time and, contrary to museum protocol, were allowed in immediately. They then tied up the two guards on duty and took what they wanted.

Early on, a device on the wall next to one of the paintings started to screech. They smashed it and, whaddya know, it stopped. They stayed 81 minutes in the museum and made two trips to their car with the loot. The theft wasn't discovered until the day shift.

Even today, the museum continues to periodically announce to the public how to care for the stolen art on the dwindling presumption that somebody's listening and the pieces are still around. And it keeps on the walls of its Dutch Room those empty frames (sometimes some of them, sometimes all of them) as a piteous reminder to the Gardner, its patrons and its visitors to never give up hope.

But it's a mystery why the title of Kurkjian's book is Master Thieves, given the lack of sophistication of the thieves and/or their gang bosses. Kurkjian unwinds the warren of comings and goings of the Boston gangsters he believes were involved in the heist, and the voyage of the Gardner art through their underworld -- there's so many turns in this story you almost need training wheels to follow it.

Kurkjian speculates why the art was stolen (so they'd have money for something else); unfortunately, he can't pinpoint where the art is today, and some of the people he links to the heist have died or been murdered.

If you want to go looking for the lost Gardner horde (and collect the $5-million reward the gallery offers for its return), there's no better place to start than the pages of Master Thieves. The museum (and the FBI) could use the help.

 

Barry Craig's favourite artists are the late Ted Harrison, Joe Fafard and Winnipeg's Jordan Van Sewell and Anja Studer.

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History

Updated on Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 8:15 AM CDT: Formatting.

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