Theater & art

An open letter: Please return Gardner Museum treasures

The picture frame that held a Rembrandt, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” stolen 25 years ago.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The picture frame that held a Rembrandt, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” stolen 25 years ago.

To whom it may concern,

Please return the stolen paintings. They belong in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an extraordinary place, which should not have to be connected in anyone’s mind with empty frames and stories about art heists and skulduggery.

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But thanks to you, it is.

I have no idea of your circumstances or of the calculations you feel you have to make, and I understand that right now, it may seem too complicated to give them back. But perhaps it is simpler than you think?

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I wish I could say that you would feel better if you gave them back, but what would I know? That’s really the problem, isn’t it? I have no idea who I am talking to.

Are you a fool, for instance, or just stupid? There’s a big difference. We’re all more or less stupid. We do stupid things in our youth; we do different kinds of stupid things as we get older. It doesn’t really improve.

I, for instance, am surely stupid to think that, 25 years after the Gardner Museum theft, you are going to listen to the plea of an art critic.

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Sometimes, God knows, we’re totally moronic. But even then, there’s hope. You can bask in a certain solidarity with the rest of humanity, for starters. And then, better still, you can wise up. You can recognize your mistakes. You can shake your head and rub your eyes in disbelief that you were ever so dumb as to break into a museum, or to receive a stolen Vermeer, and you can marvel at the fact that back then you really didn’t know what the hell you were doing. You can even begin to think through the business of making amends.

But if you’re a fool, it’s different. Fools don’t just shame themselves. They have a special way of spreading the shame around.

People get excited about the Gardner heist, I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s easy to see why. It’s a good mystery, on the face of it. In my line of work, and maybe in yours, too, you often overhear people gossiping about it. You read stories in the newspaper or on the radio. And there are books about it too. None of which, of course, seem to have brought anyone any closer to solving the crime.

And so we go to the Gardner itself. And if we are with, say, our kids, or with out-of-town visitors, one of the first things we tell them about, inevitably, is the theft, perhaps because we suspect it will interest them more than the art itself.

That’s understandable. And yet it’s also where this strange, oozing sense of shame kicks in. Is this really what you’ve come to the museum for?

You arrive, by and by, at the Dutch Room, where the two paintings and the etching by Rembrandt, the landscape by Govaert Flinck, and the beautiful Vermeer all used to hang, and you dutifully point out the empty frames.

There’s a slight metallic taste on your tongue as you dredge up piquant details about the theft — dimly remembered reports about how it happened or gossip about who might have been involved . . . a guard . . . the Mafia . . . something about Whitey Bulger?

Your children ask the obvious questions (“Did they have knives to cut them out?” “Is our house safe?”), and then they move on. But by now this inexplicable sense of shame has really started to spread.

You wonder at what you have just said, and then maybe, if you get a moment to yourself, you linger for a minute in front of one of those empty frames — let’s say the one that held Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

I’m not going to start waxing lyrical at this point about why it is such a great and important picture, Rembrandt’s only seascape, and so on, much less about why art matters, why it feeds the soul, dah-de-dah. I’ve tried briefly to formulate such sentences in my mind, and I can’t get to the first adjective before feeling swamped by sensations of futility, ridiculousness, and yes, once again, shame.

So here we are, standing in the Dutch Room in front of the big empty frame that used to hold the dramatic Rembrandt. What is it we feel?

It’s one of those things for which there are no real words. But I can say that instead of feeling myself in the presence of greatness, which is how I know I should be feeling, I feel myself in the presence of fools.

Fools who stole this art, putting people’s lives at risk in the process. Fools who, in every sense, didn’t know what they were doing. Fools who were willing, for whatever ugly reason, to receive the stolen works. Fools who, after 25 years, have still failed to make amends for their actions. Fools who just don’t get it.

And the upshot is, I feel myself a fool. Because the whole problem with fools is that you start to feel foolish just by consorting with them. In front of those empty frames, in the Dutch Room above all, but also in the Blue Room, from where Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” was stolen, you feel personally infected by this shame.

Like the smell of burnt toast, it drifts out of those empty frames, and you can’t get the acrid odor out of your nostrils.

What makes it doubly awful is that it is just so utterly at odds with the palace Mrs. Gardner herself envisaged — the Venetian-style building she planned as a spiritual sanctuary, a place of contemplation, of great beauty.

A century later, the Gardner Museum remains an incredibly beautiful and welcoming place, and despite it all, full of emotion and life. It is not a museum that should have to create virtual tours about the heist on its website, and answer endless questions about the theft, year in year out from the news media and the FBI and the public.

It should be restored, the damage undone, this foolishness made to stop.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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