Art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased 13 now-legendary pieces between 1880 and 1922 for a grand total of approximately $140,000. They proved to be wise, but not exactly lasting, investments.
The masterpieces stolen from her Fenway neighborhood museum nearly three decades ago include
precious oil paintings from the likes of Vermeer and Rembrandt. They have been widely cited in recent years to be worth an estimated half-billion dollars.
But in today’s blistering art market, the pilfered paintings are worth much more, according to several experts, one of whom pegged the price at up to a billion dollars.
“When they were stolen, they would have had high, credible value,” said David Nolta, chair of the History of Art department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “But now the sky is the limit.”
One piece alone from the pilfered collection, “The Concert,” painted by Johannes Vermeer in the 1660s, could sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million, Nolta said.
“His works are very rare, he’s incredibly intriguing as a painter, very popular, and there’s no question that’s one of his best paintings,” Nolta said.
The high-end art business is red-hot right now. A Leonardo da Vinci painting called “Salvator Mundi” was bought last year by a Saudi prince for a record-high $450.3 million. A painting by David Hockney sold earlier this month for $90.3 million, by far the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by living artist.
Given the lofty expectations for the single stolen Vermeer, plus a trio of extremely valuable Rembrandts, the entire lot of 13 stolen works could go for somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion, said Kathryn Graddy, who has studied the value of auctioned art and works as dean of the international business school at Brandeis University.
By comparison, the amount Isabella Stewart Gardner paid for the artwork back in the late 1800s and early 1900s translates to several million dollars today, or less than 1 percent of what they could sell for.
If they’re ever recovered, the condition of the items will be an important factor for their worth. Meanwhile, their backstory only adds to the allure and price tag.
“The fact that they’ve been stolen is going to give them more notoriety and value and not in a bad sense,” Graddy said. “This is such a famous heist. Everybody knows it.”
For collectors, there’s glamour in owning once-abducted artwork.
“It’s like being in a club. It’s like having a mark of having survived something,” Nolta said. “It’s a very rare group.”
But if someone has stashed the artwork, they’d have to be sly in showcasing it.
The museum’s Board of Trustees have offered a $10 million award for their recovery, and a host of expert and amateur sleuths are on the case. And of course, if the art is recovered, the stolen property would have to be returned to the museum.
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|Artwork||Year bought||Price paid at time|
|Johannes Vermeer, “The Concert”||1892||$5,600|
|Rembrandt, “Christ in the storm on the Sea of Galilee”||1898||$29,100|
|Rembrandt, “Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man”||1886||$120|
|Rembrandt, “A lady and gentleman in black”||1898||$63,000|
|Edouard Manet, “Chez Tortoni”||1922||$3,400|
|Edgar Degas, “Cortège aux environs de Florence”||1919||$376|
|Edgar Degas, “La sortie de pesage”||1919||(bought with item above)|
|Edgar Degas, “Study for the Programme de la soirée artistique du 15 juin 1884 (Galerie Ponsin)” (1 of 2)||1919||$90|
|Edgar Degas, “Study for the Programme de la soirée artistique du 15 juin 1884 (Galerie Ponsin)” (2 of 2)||1919||(bought with item above)|
|Edgar Degas, “Three mounted jockeys”||1919||$383|
|Govaert Flinck, “Landscape with an obelisk”||1900||$21,900|
|Eagle Finial: Insignia of the First Regiment of Grenadiers of Foot of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard||1880||$300|
|Chinese gu (beaker)||1922||$17,500|