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Secret collector’s passion or ransom seen as motive

The art treasures seized from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum yesterday were probably contracted for in advance by a black-market collector outside the country, private investigators and art experts theorized yesterday.

Stolen pieces of the importance of those in yesterday’s robbery could have been taken only for one of two purposes, they said: for sale to a collector who had already agreed to buy them or for possible ransom.

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But the thieves appeared to have set their sights on specific works, having left behind many of equal or greater value. This indicates that one particular buyer’s tastes may have been indulged, the sources added.

“There probably was a contract for these paintings,” said Charles Moore, a Brockton detective who has recovered about $20 million worth of art through 10 highly publicized cases. “It could just be a collector who wanted them or possibly a drug cartel that uses them for trading purposes -- commodity instead of cash.”

Moore said he thinks the works are already headed for South America or Japan. “That’s where the money is,” Moore said.

The black-market value of art treasures is widely believed to be 10 percent of their auction value, he added.

Art thefts of all types, from museum hold-ups to the looting of antiquities in Europe and the Third World, have become increasingly common in recent years, a time when art prices have skyrocketed.

The number of thefts reported to Interpol, the international police agency, nearly doubled between 1985 and 1988. Law enforcement agencies estimate that art thievery has become a $1 billion-a-year business, second only to drug- running among illegal international trades.

But the vast majority of the items stolen are of intermediate value, like two Grandma Moses paintings taken in 1989 from the Bloch Gallery on Newbury Street. Each was estimated to be worth $100,000. Paintings of that value can be sold to collectors abroad or in other corners of the United States with little risk of being found, experts say.

Famous works by Vermeer and Rembrandt -- instantly recognizable by even casual art buffs -- are all but impossible to fence, however. Vermeers, in particular, are “utterly non-negotiable,” said Peter Sutton, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts. Only 32 are known to exist, three of them missing due to theft.

For years, such missing masterpieces have been rumored to be part of the hidden collections of foreign millionaires.

Walter Kaiser, director of Itatti, the Harvard University art-study center in Florence, Italy, said in an interview yesterday that “Everyone hears stories about South American millionaires who sit in their basements and look at paintings no one else can be allowed to see. But you never know whether they’re true.”

Itatti is the former mansion of Bernard Berenson, the legendary art scholar who helped Isabella Stewart Gardner amass her collection. Kaiser called the thefts “a tremendous loss.”

Moore, for one, said he relieves eccentric collectors of stolen art do exist and that principals in the Central and South American drug trade are among them.

But he said such collectors would be very difficult to contact, unless one of them indicated his or her interest in advance. If the thieves have not already cut a deal, he added, their best chance to make money would be to sell them back to the Gardner Museum or its insurance company.

“With a professional hit like this, they’d be likely to hold them for a while and try to cut a deal with the museum or insurance company,” he said. ‘‘It would take time to develop. ‘‘They like to wait until everything dies down and then try to cut a deal. If they can’t do it, they’ll pass them down to a fence. Sometimes it takes 10 years for them to surface.”

Moore said he has heard rumors of art thieves destroying masterpieces that they could not fence.

Over the past 20 years, Moore has helped local police forces and the Federal Bureau of Investigation recover more than 20 paintings stolen from the home of Harvard University president Derek Bok; a Winslow Homer painting lifted from the Malden Public Library; priceless Ming vases stolen from an estate in Cohasset; and many others.

Were he to be called on the Gardner case, he said his first step would be to survey the scene of the crime and then to “get the word out to the source people I deal with.”

Moore said fencing operations in Boston might already have knowledge of where -- or to whom -- the treasures are headed. He said there are many fencing operations at work in Boston. “Newbury Street is full of them,” he said.

Boston area museums have been the victims of several thefts in recent years. In most cases, the items have been recovered and the thieves or fences apprehended.

A $2 million Chinese porcelain vase of the Yuan dynasty was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts on February 19, 1989. The FBI recovered the vase, along with numerous objects taken from other museums, about a month later after a member of the ring attempted to sell some of the items to a New York dealer.

In the early ‘70s, a Rembrandt oil painting was taken from the MFA, where it was on display on loan from the family of a local collector. The painting was recovered within a few years after a fence approached the museum to sell it back.

Cornelius Vermeule, senior curator of the MFA, said he has grown increasingly concerned about thefts as art prices continue to rise.

“When you see the running index of art prices at Sotheby’s orChristie’s, with the price listed in dollars, Yen, Deutschmarks, Swiss Francs, you become aware that great works have to be guarded like banks guard their vaults,” Vermeule said.

“You realize that sometimes the smaller, older museums with wonderful collections are more vulnerable to this sort of thing,” he added.

The will of the Gardner Museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, compels its trustees to leave every work where she left it, or the entire collection is to be auctioned off. Gardner’s will would almost certainly prevent trustees

from moving works to safer locations.

And with art thefts on the rise, Vermeule said, museums must apply advanced technology to protect their collections.

“It’s like being in a ring with a very tough boxer,” he said. “You let your guard down for a minute and you’ll be on the ropes.”

The MFA, Vermeule said, has a security command center that functions as ‘‘an armored room,” and cannot be entered except by guards.

“We have a rule that you don’t open the door to anyone,” he said, noting that the Gardner security team was tricked into admitting thieves dressed as policemen. “If six nuns appear at the door saying their van is broken down, you don’t let them in. It’s like a bank. Bankers don’t let people in to check the alarms.”

Jane Langton, a mystery writer from Lincoln whose 1988 novel “Murder at the Gardner,” postulates a robbery at the Gardner Museum, said in an interview yesterday that Gardner administrators never allowed her to see their security plan.

Instead, she made one up and apologized to the real security force in an afterword to her book.

“In actuality the Gardner Museum is wisely run and superbly protected,” she wrote. “None of the bad things here described could possibly happen there.”

Sidebar:

TEN MAJOR ART THEFTS IN THE ‘80S

DEC. 12, 1989: Thieves steal three paintings by van Gogh, with an estimated value of $72 million, from the Kroeller-Mueller Museum in a remote section of the Netherlands. The thieves demand a ransom of $2.2 million for the works, and return one of them. Police recover the other two on July 13, 1989.

MAY 20, 1988: Three paintings by van Gogh, Cezanne and Dutch artist Johna Jongkind are taken from Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Museum estimated the paintings’ worth at $52 million, but Christie’s auction house puts it at $11 million. Authorities later recover the works in March 1989.

MAY 21, 1986: Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid” is among 18 paintings worth $40 million stolen form Russborough House in Blessington, Ireland. Others stolen include works by Goya, Rubens, and Gainsborough. The thieves escape with 18 paintings, but dump seven of the least valuable works near a reservoir. Some of the same paintings were stolen in 1974 in an abortive attempt to ransom them for IRA prisoners in Britain and were recovered eight days after the theft.

MAY 3, 1989: Six armed men flashing fake police badges steal $30 million to $40 million worth of paintings, sculptures and tapestries from the Chacara do Ceu Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Police recover the works, which include paintings by Dali and Matisse and two Chinese ceramic sculpted horses from the 7th century T’ang Dynasty.

NOV. 5, 1989: Works worth at least $17 million are taken from the home of Picasso’s daughter, Marina Picasso, including seven paintings by Picasso, a Brueghel and a bust by August Rodin.

OCT. 27, 1985: Five armed men steal nine impressionist paintings from Paris’ Marmottan Museum in a bank-style holdup. Monet’s “Impression Soleil Levant” (Impression Sunrise) is taken along with four other Monets, two Renoirs, a Morisot, and a Naruse. The museum’s curator estimates the paintings’ value at $12.5 million but deems the famed Monet priceless because of its historic value. The Monet has been traced to Japan, but has not been recovered to date.

MARCH 24, 1987: Six paintings are stolen from the Juan B. Castagnino Municipal Museum in Rosario, Argentina. Among the paintings, worth an estimated $12 million, are works by Goya, El Greco, Tiziano and Veronese.

NOV. 1983: Seven Italian Renaissance masterpieces, including works by Raphael and Tintoretto, are stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. All of the paintings, worth $7 million are recovered within a year, some from a sack pulled from the Danube River.

FEB. 8, 1988: Burglars break through a skylight into the Colnaghi Art Gallery in New York City, and steal 27 Old Master paintings and drawings. The stolen artwork is valued at $6 million, including panels by 15th century Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico.

OCT. 1982: Eight paintings are stolen from the Norwegian National Gallery in

Oslo. Seven of the works, valued at $5.55 million and including masterpieces by Picasso, Rembrandt and van Gogh, are recovered two years later in West Germany.

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