It was the largest art heist in world history, and it remains unresolved. Twenty-five years ago, on March 18, 1990, thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with 13 pieces of artwork, including two masterpieces — “The Concert,” the only Vermeer that had been on display in New England, and Rembrandt’s only seascape, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” one of the best paintings from his early period. It’s time to get them back, and the leaders of Boston can help.
The theft, worth a half billion dollars, also included sketches by Degas, a portrait by Manet, and three other Rembrandts (including an etching on paper). Although the FBI has chased every lead, there has never been a “proof of life” sighting of any of the pieces since they were driven off into the misty night in a dark-colored hatchback.
Anne Hawley, who took over as director of the museum several months before the robbery, has spoken eloquently about what the loss means to the public. In 2008, she described the theft as “a tragic loss, not just to the art world and to the visiting public, but to society as a whole. Imagine never being able to watch a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ or Beethoven’s ‘Fifth.’ Art has the power to inspire thinking and creativity, and the loss of these paintings, drawings, and objects affects all of us and all of society.”
Even though the museum tried unsuccessfully to convince the Vatican to issue a papal appeal for help in recovering Rembrandt’s “Storm” seascape, remarkably, not a single leader from government or politics, from business or academe, from religion or even sports has joined publicly with Hawley to lament about the theft or call on their separate communities to assist in the search.
Two years ago, the head of the Boston office of the FBI made headlines when he asserted that federal investigators had discovered who was responsible for the theft and that those who held the artworks had tried to fence them in Philadelphia in 2002. However, FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers provided no names of those responsible for the theft or who had tried to fence the works. Whatever leads developed from the bombshell announcement have led to no recovery, and it seems as the 25th anniversary of the theft nears, along with Hawley’s announced retirement at the end of the year, that the city has come to accept the loss as the ultimate cold case.
Before that happens, though, it may be time to try a different approach than depending solely on law enforcement — an approach that would call on the leaders of “official Boston” to speak about what the collective loss of these masterpieces means to the region’s “common wealth.”
Consider the impact of seeing such leaders as Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Governor Charlie Baker, and Mayor Marty Walsh standing in front of the empty frames that once held the Rembrandts and the Vermeer in the second floor Dutch Room, asking for the public’s help in recovering the works. Or Tom Brady. Or David Ortiz.
The FBI believes that the heist was pulled off by local thugs who had been made aware of the museum’s poor security by fellow gang members. The fact that some of the most valuable pieces were cut from their frames attests to the likelihood that the crime was not ordered by a criminal mastermind or foreign potentate who was driven to have these masterpieces on his wall.
Without law enforcement gaining a clear signal to their whereabouts, perhaps Boston’s leaders can help, and Gardner Museum officials would do well to give the idea serious consideration. In addition, social media could help spread the message that the masterpieces are public treasures that belong back on the walls of the Gardner, and anyone who might know something should contact the museum or authorities. Presumably, that message would be accentuated by the reminder that there is a $5 million reward for the safe return of the artworks and that federal prosecutors have long pledged not to charge anyone who provides key information that leads to a recovery.
If justice and sympathy are factors in such campaigns, then Mrs. Gardner’s own biography provides ample reason for even Boston’s hardest hearts to be responsive to an appeal. Her goal in opening the museum in 1903 was to encourage an American-style of painting that might one day match the Italian, Dutch, and other worldly masters whose works she was acquiring with her late husband’s fortune. And for years she insisted that admission to the museum be free, or whatever the visitor could afford, so that as many as people as possible, regardless of their social or economic status, could enjoy the wonders of artistic expression. It’s time to get the masterworks back. And Boston’s leaders should help.
Stephen Kurkjian covered the investigation into the Gardner Museum theft for the Globe and his book on the case, “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist’’ will be published this month.