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Sebastian Smee

A sickening feeling when art is stolen

“Charing Cross Bridge, London” by Claude Monet.

AFP/Getty Images

“Charing Cross Bridge, London” by Claude Monet.

It’s a sickening feeling Bostonians know all too well: wonderful, precious, unique art works, there one day, gone the next.

It happened here, of course, in 1990, when thieves ransacked the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, taking works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas. That crime remains the boldest and (in terms of value) the biggest art theft in history. The missing paintings have been valued at more than $300 million.

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Now, in Rotterdam, a cache of seven works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, Meyer de Haan, and Lucian Freud, reported to be worth around $130 million, has disappeared from the Kunsthal museum, where they were part of a temporary exhibition of approximately 150 works drawn from the collection of businessman Willem Cordia. You can read a statement from the museum’s director, Emily Ansenk, here, where she says “news of this incident came like a bombshell to the entire artworld.”

The show was intended as a celebration of the Kunsthal’s 20th anniversary. It will be remembered very differently.

There is great interest and value in all the works, even if none of them can be placed in the same category of greatness as the Vermeer and Rembrandts at the Gardner. The Picasso is from the fascinating final years of that genius’s life. The Matisse is from his underrated Nice period. The two Monets are of London’s Waterloo Bridge, one of his most famous motifs.

But for personal as well as artistic reasons, it’s the Lucian Freud that I particularly mourn the loss of. Called simply “Woman with Eyes Closed,” it shows the head of a young woman I was lucky to meet when I lived in London.

Her name is not important – nor, perhaps, is the fact that she was gravely ill when Freud painted her, in 2002. Freud painted a dog and his lover with their eyes closed that same year. He also painted David Hockney, his granddaughter, his garden, himself, and four eggs that were a gift from the Duchess of Devonshire. All are extraordinary paintings.

“Woman with Eyes Closed” by Lucian Freud, 2002.

AFP/Getty Images

“Woman with Eyes Closed” by Lucian Freud, 2002.

But I remember “Woman with Eyes Closed” in particular because when I met the subject, she was incredibly likable. She had that unstable, disarmingly English combination of good looks, modesty, charm, and considerateness, and she seemed preternaturally sensitive to everything that was happening around her.

Despite her terminal illness, she had just married her fiancé. The two of them together struck everyone around them as very beautiful, in every sense. Sitting for Freud had been a major event in her life – though presumably not as significant as her marriage or her medical diagnosis.

We saw each other at the opening of Freud’s retrospective at Tate Britain, where the stolen painting, which was one of the most recently completed in the show, was hanging in the final gallery.

When almost all the other guests (among them were Kate Moss, John Richardson, Frank Auerbach, and Francis Wyndham) had left the galleries, she approached me and asked if I would mind using her camera to take a photo of her in front of her portrait.

Actually, I remember she was nervous about it, and first asked if I thought it would be permissible. I said, “Of course, there’s no one around! And who here is going to care anyway? It’s a picture of YOU, you have every right!”

I remember saying this because as she posed and I clicked the button once, maybe twice, we both heard approaching footsteps. I looked around and saw the tall, thin, imposing figure of the Tate’s director, Sir Nicholas Serota.

Caught in the act!

In the event, he walked straight past. But it was a very funny moment, and together, the woman and I were reduced to the level of errant schoolchildren. We felt a surge of high spirits and absurd complicity, which remained in place when we took a cab together – she, my wife, and I – to a restaurant where all the guests from the exhibition opening were meeting. Her husband, I seem to remember, was to meet her there.

After that night, I never saw her again. I understand she is no longer with us.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at SSmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Sebastiansmee
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