scorecardresearch Skip to main content

3/20/90: Art stolen from Gardner Museum was uninsured

Thieves may find the booty ‘too hot to handle’

There is no Dr. No.

So say art experts concerning common theories of sinister, rich collectors who, like the James Bond supervillain, arrange thefts of priceless works or are willing to purchase such objects. Unless the thieves who plundered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had a prearranged buyer, these priceless works of art stolen Sunday are virtually worthless.

“They’re unsalable. There’s no place for them in the legitimate market,” said Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a New York organization that documents art thefts. “They’re too hot to handle.

“And as far as a collector who orders a theft, we don’t have a single documented case of a Dr. No,” she said. “It’s all speculation.”


“You read about it in fiction and you see them in the movies, but we don’t know about any of them,” Lowenthal said. “There are no documented cases of people like that.”

The two men who disguised themselves as police officers and stole 12 art objects, including paintings by Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt, from the renowned Gardner museum in Boston’s Fenway section may have done it in vain, experts said. Few collectors, if any, would be willing to purchase these works.

“I can’t see these works, at least the Vermeer and the Rembrandt, even going into the black market,” said Robert W. Holmes Jr., an art attorney with Powers & Hall, a Boston law firm. “There are theories that there may be a demented connoisseur out there who contracted to have these paintings, especially the Vermeer, stolen.

“But it’s hard for me to put that together with the psychology involved in owning a world-class painting. There’s a certain amount of ego-satisfaction involved and how can you get that if you can’t tell anyone you own it?”

Holmes suggested the thieves may try to ransom the paintings, although to some people in art circles, ransoming art is tantamount to negotiating with terrorists. If the thieves want ransom, such a request would be made fairly soon, he said.


“They’re so priceless and so unusual, that it’s almost conceiveable that someone contracted to have them taken to be available as hostage material in some sort of political situation,” Holmes said. “It’s a pretty good hostage, actually.”

Charles Moore, a Brockton private investigator who has recovered more than $20 million worth of art, said it would not be uncommon for the paintings to be used as “bargaining chips.”

“You can use them for plea bargaining purposes to get yourself out of trouble,” he said. “And you can always ransom them. That’s makes them very valuable the way I look at it, but whether the museum or law enforcement would go along with it is another story.”

Along with the sale of narcotics and weapons, art theft ranks high among illegal international trade. It is a $1 billion-a-year industry that has increased as art prices have soared.

The market for stolen art is limited to lesser-known works, however, experts said.

“Only in the past few years has art emerged as an investment alternative . . . which has pumped the pricing structure way up,” Holmes said. “Before that you didn’t have as much at stake financially. You didn’t have the temptations and pressures to steal and fake art.”

In recent years, paintings by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso have been sold legitimately for millions of dollars. Such sales have generated as much interest among criminals as they have collectors, Lowenthal said.


“Even if art theft were not growing numerically, it would be growing in

dollar terms because of the way prices have been rising,” she said. “But it is our impression that theft is growing numerically as well as financially

because the thieves read the newspapers too, and know they can get money for art.”

Because law enforcement agencies group art theft among all property crimes, it is difficult to find accurate statistics on it. Interpol, the international police agency, records art theft, but officials admit the agency’s numbers are merely a fraction of all stolen works.

According to Interpol figures, 6,200 art objects were stolen in 1985. In the first eight months of 1988, less than a year after van Gogh’s “Irises” sold for $53.9 million and “Sunflowers” for $39.9 million, more than 9,000 art thefts were reported.

Major auction houses such as Sotheby and Christie’s are wary of art and antiquities offered for sale. Before each auction, several agencies, including Lowenthal’s foundation, the FBI and the New York City police, receive catalogs with picutres and descriptions of all items, said Matthew Weigman, manager of auction information at Sotheby’s in New York.

“Auctions are the most public places to sell art properties, so very, very seldom do stolen works come to auction,” he said. “Because it’s so public, an auction would be the worst place to dispose of stolen art work, so that’s the best safeguard you can have.”


Auction houses also have access to the foundation’s art theft archives, which list more than 32,000 stolen works. For $50, anyone can check the files to see if a particular art object has been stolen, Lowenthal said.

“We are working on a future project with the auction houses to make this very easy to do,” Lowenthal said. “We’ll have two computer databases -- what the auction houses are selling and what we have listed as stolen, and the two files will interface.”

Sometimes, art thieves are so desperate to dispose of stolen objects, they will sell to the first person interested, Lowenthal said. While the black- market rate for most stolen art is about 10 percent of the auction value, some criminals will sell an object for 1 percent of its worth for a quick profit, she said.

“It’s heart-sickening. Anybody who’s ever been to the Gardner Museum always thinks of it as a special world,” Lowenthal said. “And the invasion of contemporary crime into that setting is particularly upsetting.”

But more disturbing than the theft itself, Holmes said, is its possible effect on art accessibility.

“We may find that the big traveling shows like Monet may not be available anymore,” he said, referring to the “Monet in the ‘90s” exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts through April 29.

Holmes added that the rising incidence of art theft could eventually hike insurance premiums for other museums. On the average, most museums pay one- half percent per month per million of valuation, Holmes said. That means if a museum has one or more pieces worth $100 million, the annual premium is $600,000. “Most museums cannot afford the already exorbitant premiums,” he said.


Still, there is cautious optimism for the return of the art works. Swamped by publicity and unable to sell the stolen items, the thieves might return or abandon them.

The stolen treasures “can go back where they belong,” Lowenthal said. ‘‘The thieves may wake up and simply realize they can’t sell what they took.”

Globe Staff