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Museum’s loyalists stunned, angered by its violation

Theodora Sweeney’s astonishment turned quickly to anger yesterday when she arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for an afternoon of art and music only to find the museum had been robbed and was closed.

“It does anger me,” the Weymouth resident said as she arrived with friends Ida Walsh and Marie Smith for what they had expected to be a pleasant afternoon. “The reason that we have these places is so that people can enjoy culture in the inner city . . . This is one of a kind, you don’t find a beautiful palace in the inner city.”

Sweeney’s mixture of anger at the loss of the art and the sense of violation for one of New England’s unique museums typified the reaction of dozens who were stunned to learn of the theft only as they arrived on the Fenway.


Throughout yesterday, people from around the world and the Northeast arrived at the black iron grates of the Gardner to be confronted by hand- printed signs telling them only that the museum was closed for the day.

The museum has always had its loyal following, people who took pleasure

from the opportunity to view artistic masterpieces in a place that reflected the eccentric and eclectic personality of an individual, rather than in a building designed by a group.

Many spoke of Isabella Stewart Gardner yesterday as if they had known her personally and as if her unconventional antics had taken place just last week, instead of more than 70 years ago. They also spoke of how they believed she would have reacted to the violation of her home and of how they shared her feelings.

“She would have been indignant, very indignant” said Frieda Lang, who with her husband, Bill, and son Andrew had planned to show the museum to cousins from Hadley. “This is terrible.”


There were people like Debora Schwartz, who had over the years made the museum a must stop on their itinerary whenever they came to Boston.

As she and two friends were told about the robbery, Schwartz pulled out a hardcover copy of the museum’s catalog from a knapsack and began paging through it, searching for pictures of what had been taken.

Schwartz, who had urged her friends to accompany her to the museum because of the joy it had given her during previous visits, was upset to learn that one of the lost paintings was Vermeer’s “The Concert.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen in my life,” said Schwartz, a graduate student at Princeton University. “I feel like someone has kicked me in the gut.”

While bemoaning the loss to the Gardner itself, some patrons also expressed a strong belief that the theft will inevitably and drastically reduce the public’s chances to view the world’s great art.

Some said they expect traveling exhibits, such as the Monet show now at the Museum of Fine Arts, to become a thing of the past. Others envisioned new security measures that will shield paintings in glass and plastic, reducing the public’s opportunities to examine the artists’ skill personally.

“The thing that is so disgusting about this is that art is for the people,” said Louis Silveira, a Boston University student. “The theft is a violation of everybody’s right to come to . . . museums to see works of art.”


There was a sense of excitment, too, among the frustrated museum-goers. Many wondered aloud how the crime was committed and who the beneficiary would be. Most said they believed the art would end up in the private gallery of some little-known, fabulously wealthy collector.

People also wondered what impact the theft would have on Boston’s reputation as a place that values culture, art and -- as one Manhattanite described it -- “civilization.”

“We expect it in New York, but we didn’t expect it in Boston,” said Ellie Weinstein of Manhattan.

Baltasar Samper, an expressionist painter from Iceland, said he feared that the concept of art as a force for good in the world would be curtailed as security intensifies because of the theft.

Samper and his wife, sculptor Kristjana, were invited to tour the Gardner museum by the former US ambassador to Iceland, Marshall Brement and his wife, Pamela Sounders-Brement. Samper is in this country for the opening on Friday of an exhibition of his work at the Newton Arts Center gallery.

“This is more than a theft. They are stealing our chance to see good art,” said Samper. “This enticing and marvelous world is very important and we must not miss it because of this type of robbery.”