Thieves Identified In Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
March 18, 2013 1:18 PM   Subscribe

"In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990 – as the city was preoccupied with Saint Patrick's Day celebrations – a pair of thieves disguised themselves as Boston police officers, gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and stole thirteen works of art."* "The stolen works have a total estimated worth of around $500 million, making the robbery the largest property theft ever"* and "considered the greatest art theft in history."* Today the FBI announced that they have identified the people who stole the masterworks. They also said they had determined where the artworks had traveled in the years after the robbery. The FBI said they did not know where they were now and were appealing to the public for their help in finding them. The Gardner Museum is offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to the recovery of these works.
posted by ericb (96 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Um, no they haven't. They haven't publicly identified anyone. They haven't publicly placed even the temporary location of any of the artworks. So this is a no news news event.
posted by Gungho at 1:20 PM on March 18, 2013


I recommend highly watching the 2006 documentary on the art heist: 'Stolen.'
posted by ericb at 1:20 PM on March 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Did this get coughed up from a Submit queue where it languished for a decade?
posted by wenestvedt at 1:22 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The statute of limitations has passed, so even if they know who did it, can they do anything about it?

I spent a fair amount of time at the Gardner when I was in high school, and the news of the heist shocked and upset me, as if someone had broken into my own house and stolen my stuff.

I hate art thieves. Hate them.
posted by rtha at 1:23 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"They haven't publicly identified named anyone."

From the Boston.com article:
Officials said at a Boston news conference they would not release the names of the individuals who masqueraded as police officers to gain entry in the early-morning robbery at the Gardner exactly 23 years ago.

DesLauriers said that because the investigation is continuing it would be “imprudent” to disclose their names or the name of the criminal organization. He said the probe was in its “final chapter.”
So, I wouldn't call this a "no news news event."
posted by ericb at 1:23 PM on March 18, 2013


Also relevant- story about the guard who let the "police" in.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:26 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I recommend highly watching the 2006 documentary on the art heist: 'Stolen.'

Seconded. The book written after the movie, however, is a total waste of time, contributing nothing, and just riding on the movie's success.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:27 PM on March 18, 2013


I swear to god I still think Whitey Bulger's got something to do with it.
posted by scody at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Who buys stolen art? It's presumably expensive as heck, and the "look at my sweet collection" motivation would seem to be diminished by the practical inability to display stolen goods.

Oh well. The police sketches of the suspects are awesome.
posted by compartment at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's a Whitey Bulger joke in here somewhere.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2013


With no new information to reveal, why would an appeal to the public make more sense now than it would, say, a year ago or ten years ago?
posted by vacapinta at 1:31 PM on March 18, 2013


I really hope the theives are found and that somehow we get to see what they looked like back then because I really needs to know if these police sketches are as ridiculous as they seem.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:32 PM on March 18, 2013


Looks like someone at the FBI is worried about losing their job. I'm guessing that when this 'project' ends, so does their position(s)' funding.
posted by Yowser at 1:32 PM on March 18, 2013


I hate art thieves. Hate them.

Agreed. What's also weird about these big art heists is that there often seems to be considerable planning and thought put into bringing the heist off, and almost no thought at all as to what they're going to do with the damn things once they've got 'em. A stolen masterpiece is mostly a white elephant. There's just no market where you sell the thing for anything remotely close to its real value. Why on earth they didn't just arrange to sell them back to the insurer on the quiet is a mystery.
posted by yoink at 1:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vacapinta and others: As ericb said, there is new information to reveal. They have finally discovered who actually committed the theft. (They're just not releasing the names.) That's huge.
posted by Melismata at 1:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vacapinta, my guess is that in announcing that the cops are closing in, having definite suspects, some people might feel the pressure, and be more inclined to talk than they were previously.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:35 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


With no new information to reveal, why would an appeal to the public make more sense now than it would, say, a year ago or ten years ago?

I guess there's a sense that saying "look, we know who did it and they're not at risk of prosecution" might free up some tongues. I imagine there must be quite a few people out there who know something but don't want to be thought of as a snitch.
posted by yoink at 1:36 PM on March 18, 2013


The statute of limitations has passed, so even if they know who did it, can they do anything about it?


Well, they could ask them where the paintings are.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:36 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The statute of limitations has passed, so even if they know who did it, can they do anything about it?

Yeah, as a result of the Gardner heist Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored a bill which passed making art theft from a museum a federal crime and raised the statute of limitations from five to 20 years.

I wonder what the thieves can be charged with.
Ortiz said the statute of limitations had run out for the people who actually robbed the museum. She said there was also the possibility that prosecutors could grant immunity from prosecution to people who might be subject to other charges, such as charges of possessing the stolen paintings.

“That is a very strong possibility, but I cannot give blanket immunity without knowing the specifics,” he said.
posted by ericb at 1:39 PM on March 18, 2013


Yeah, as a result of the Gardner heist Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored a bill which passed making art theft from a museum a federal crime and raised the statute of limitations from five to 20 years.

But with the theft occurring before that bill was passed, it wouldn't apply, would it?
posted by yoink at 1:41 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who buys stolen art? It's presumably expensive as heck, and the "look at my sweet collection" motivation would seem to be diminished by the practical inability to display stolen goods.

An underground collection or even bragging rights are one thing, but may be of minor use compared to stolen art's value as high-end illicit currency. It is a physical thing that everyone recognizes is worth a great deal, even if that worth cannot be realized in actual cash money.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990 ... the early-morning robbery at the Gardner exactly 23 years ago

Oh dear lord, when will it stop surprising me how long ago the 90s were? Somehow I keep thinking they were just a few years ago.
posted by vytae at 1:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


So, it was Neil and Mozzy after all!
posted by Old'n'Busted at 1:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


A little more the market (and its limits) for high-profile stolen art:
Since everyone knows the paintings are stolen, it’s impossible to sell them at auction. How do thieves profit from a high-profile art heist?

The black market. Most stolen art work goes underground. The thief sells his haul to an unscrupulous art dealer, who usually sells it on to a private collector who keeps it for a while. After several years and many subsequent underground transactions, relatively obscure pieces can be sold in the open, especially through small auction houses that don’t specialize in art. Even after a generation, however, it will be very difficult to bring a stolen Picasso or a Monet back to auction.

Thieves offer paintings by the masters at incredible discounts. According to Joshua Knelman’s book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art, a stolen painting usually goes for around 10 percent of its legitimate auction value in the first sale between criminal and shady dealer. The price is low because both parties are at risk.
posted by scody at 1:43 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


... no thought at all as to what they're going to do with the damn things once they've got 'em. A stolen masterpiece is mostly a white elephant.

A previous AskMe: Turning Stolen Art into Money.
posted by ericb at 1:43 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The heist movie fan in me is a bit disappointed that this theft was committed by a crime organization, rather than some suave, rich dude with too much time on his hands. It's so much less... romantic? Plus, it seems like a criminal organization could find easier ways to earn money than art theft. Why would they bother pulling off a highly-planned caper?
posted by vytae at 1:49 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is a physical thing that everyone recognizes is worth a great deal, even if that worth cannot be realized in actual cash money.

I often hear this claim, but its not one that makes any sense to me. If the worth cannot be realized, why should anyone accept this object as collateral for anything? The bank isn't going to lend me money because I say I've got a really, really, really nice house, it's just the stupid market that thinks the fact that the title is contested and cannot be clarified is a problem; why are drug dealers so much more generous? In other words, what use is it to a drug cartel if they're left holding a painting they can't sell after I abscond with their money?
posted by yoink at 1:49 PM on March 18, 2013


I swear to god I still think Whitey Bulger's got something to do with it.

Yeah, me, too. Seeing that he stands trial this summer; he recently lost his bid for immunity and last week got U.S. District Court Judge Richard Sterns removed from the case, I wonder if he offered up information as a bargaining chip for a possible reduction in sentence when (if?) found guilty.
posted by ericb at 1:49 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I wonder what the thieves can be charged with.

There's the possession of stolen property, as you cited, but there's also the possibility of obstruction of justice charges, or perjury, depending how and how often the suspects have lied to or misled investigators. The statute of limitations may rule out charges relating to the original theft, but there may be plenty of other charges still available, with the clock being reset on those well after the initial theft.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:53 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


A previous AskMe: Turning Stolen Art into Money.

Is anybody thinking what I'm thinking?

God, I wish.

(Yes, I dislike art thievery as much as anyone else, but my favorite web community being moderated by "the greatest art theft in history" is the kind of glamour my life is severely lacking.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:56 PM on March 18, 2013


What does Whitey Bulger know about the 1990 Gardner Museum art heist?
posted by ericb at 1:56 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd imagine the Chinese bronze has long since been repatriated. I have a certain sympathy with Chinese collectors who go to great lengths to buy up their patrimony. The paintings, however, are surely too recognizable to ever enter the marketplace. Even if no one is ever punished for the theft or subsequent dealing in the stolen property, it is the paintings that I, with so many others, desperately hope will be returned one day. Those empty frames not only pain us, they shame us.
posted by Anitanola at 1:58 PM on March 18, 2013


In other words, what use is it to a drug cartel if they're left holding a painting they can't sell after I abscond with their money?

Because its value is as a currency. The actual value of a currency as a physical object may be minimal. There is a great demand in the black market for a currency which can be transported more easily and attract less attention than suitcases full of cash. A piece of stolen art is a one-of-a-kind physical object that represents great value, and is recognized as such. The black market is not looking to sell the stolen art, they're looking to trade it as you would a million dollar bill. And I assume that if you reneg on your recognition value assigned to that currency, you're going to have a lot of problems.
posted by Capt. Renault at 2:16 PM on March 18, 2013


and almost no thought at all as to what they're going to do with the damn things once they've got 'em

I've always thought that these kinds of jobs were pulled at the behest of a James-Bond-movie kind of villain, who wants the paintings to sit in his specially built art room where only he can enjoy them.
posted by rtha at 2:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Those empty frames not only pain us, they shame us.
Not everyone may be aware of this so it's worth mentioning: Mrs. Gardner in her will stipulated that the contents of the museum could not be rearranged, and no other artwork could be brought in. And if the museum Trustees were ever to do so, the entire kit and kaboodle — museum, art and endowment — is to be given to Harvard University and the proceeds used to "increase the salaries of professors of said college, or in sustaining scholarships." Which is why the empty frames are still on the wall and have not been replaced by other art works.
posted by beagle at 2:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've always thought that these kinds of jobs were pulled at the behest of a James-Bond-movie kind of villain, who wants the paintings to sit in his specially built art room where only he can enjoy them.

It's nice to think that, because such a person would take good care of them. But I don't think there is any major modern art heist where that actually happened.
posted by beagle at 2:18 PM on March 18, 2013


If one is an obsessive collector, re-selling the piece is not the issue. At some point, someone will pony up the cash, just to have the thing. Even if that means it will have to remain hidden forever. If you can afford anything, the things you're not supposed to have become that much more exciting. I'm sure wealthy basements are filled with all sort of illicit stuff.
posted by billyfleetwood at 2:18 PM on March 18, 2013


Note that a statute of limitations can be "tolled," or paused. For example (just looking very quickly, I could be missing a lot) in Massachusetts "Any period during which the defendant is not usually and publicly a resident within the commonwealth shall be excluded in determining the time limited." So if the thieves weren't "usually and publicly" in Massachusetts, the statute won't have been running.

There's also such a thing as a "statute of repose," which can't be tolled, but I don't immediately see one for criminal law in Massachusetts. And then there might be other ways to toll the statute of limitations in federal law, like while you're in prison?

Basically: it's possible that the US Attorney is correct here that the statute of limitations has definitely run out, but if you're not intimately familiar with state and federal tolling law and the activities of the particular people in question, don't be too sure.

(I am not the anonymous art thieves' attorney, unless one of my clients is seriously holding out on me, and this is not legal advice.)
posted by jhc at 2:19 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is cynical and pulled out of my ass, but I think the present owners' identities are known or strongly suspected, and the appeal is just a subtle way of giving some very rich, important, or influential people an out and a way to save face and avoid messy prosecution.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:25 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's nice to think that, because such a person would take good care of them. But I don't think there is any major modern art heist where that actually happened.

You leave me alone with my fantasy!
posted by rtha at 2:27 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because its value is as a currency. The actual value of a currency as a physical object may be minimal. There is a great demand in the black market for a currency which can be transported more easily and attract less attention than suitcases full of cash. A piece of stolen art is a one-of-a-kind physical object that represents great value, and is recognized as such. The black market is not looking to sell the stolen art, they're looking to trade it as you would a million dollar bill. And I assume that if you reneg on your recognition value assigned to that currency, you're going to have a lot of problems.

But this makes zero sense to me. In what sense is Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee (62.99 in × 50.39) "transported more easily" and liable to "attract less attention" than suitcases full of cash? And in what sense does it "represent great value" if no one can sell it to make any money? I mean, there are lots of "one-of-a-kind" objects in the world--heck, given some paint and a blank canvas any one of the criminals involved could produce one. If the point is simply "we have a unique object and we will arbitrarily agree to assign it a cash value" why not pick any unique object at random? Why pick one that the cops all over the world are hunting for?

And how is this supposed to work?:

The black market is not looking to sell the stolen art, they're looking to trade it as you would a million dollar bill. And I assume that if you reneg on your recognition value assigned to that currency, you're going to have a lot of problems

I want a million bucks worth of drugs from Mr Bad Guy A. I give him the Rembrandt in exchange for the drugs. He then does what with it? Unless he personally loves Rembrandt and the painting is that valuable to him what good is possessing this object to him? But hey, maybe there's a bigger fish higher up the supply chain he owns a million bucks to. So he says "here, take my valueless Rembrandt instead!" Why does the bigger fish agree to take it? He's the Big Boss; he's got nothing to buy from underworld connections; they buy from him. The stuff he buys, he buys from legit companies. What he needs is actual cash. So he says "no, the Rembrandt's no use to me." And at that point the whole crazy scheme falls apart.

Do we even have good, solid evidence that any famous stolen work of art actually gets used in this way (as opposed to expensive items that are actually re-sellable on the auction market?)? Because if it does happen it's economically entirely irrational.
posted by yoink at 2:30 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are plenty of things people value despite or because of their rarity, illegality to trade, or exotic provenance. People with more cash than they will ever need just want the *things* they can get with that cash that no one else will then have. It's an age old human impulse.

From what I have read, I understand some high profile art thefts are actually done by professional thieves to fulfill specific orders from nefarious collectors. If you're a drug lord or an international weapons dealer, you want the painting because you can get it and keep anyone else from having it at the same time, not because it is a store of value. It's more like your yacht or your paramour.
posted by spitbull at 2:35 PM on March 18, 2013


I also thought many art thefts were done to order.
posted by fshgrl at 2:36 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Although "go get me the Gardner Museum" is a hell of an order. I wonder how much you have to tip on something like that.
posted by spitbull at 2:38 PM on March 18, 2013


From what I have read, I understand some high profile art thefts are actually done by professional thieves to fulfill specific orders from nefarious collectors.

Everything I've ever read about art theft says that this is simply a familiar fictional trope, with no real-world counterpart. And think about it for a second: collectors of high-end art tend to be people who like the cachet their collection brings them. They like showing it off to people. After all, in order to have put together a real, honest-to-goodness collection they have to have participated in auctions and gone to galleries and schmoozed with dealers etc. etc. etc. Now, all of a sudden, they're going to call up some crooks--neatly handing them a doozy of a blackmail opportunity--and get them to steal some painting to 'round out their collection' which will have to stay sealed in a vault somewhere for the rest of the collector's life? I mean, I can just about see it happening once or twice in a century, but not so as to be any appreciable part of the art theft world overall.
posted by yoink at 2:43 PM on March 18, 2013


I should add "in order to put together a collection that they actually care about." Lots of rich people end up with collections of art put together by people they hire to do the job for them; but then, they are obviously not going to be so deeply besotted with the drive to "complete" the collection that they'll hire art thieves to do the job.
posted by yoink at 2:45 PM on March 18, 2013


And in what sense does it "represent great value" if no one can sell it to make any money?

But it's not that "no one" can sell it; a black market for stolen art really does factually exist, even if the number of people participating in that market is quite small:
It is as if the missing stash—now valued as high as $500 million— simply vanished into the chilly Boston night, swallowed up in the shadowy world of stolen art.

That world, peopled by small-time crooks, big-time gangsters, unscrupulous art dealers, convicted felons, money launderers, drug merchants, gunrunners and organized criminals, contributes to an underground market of an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion a year. While the trade in stolen art does not rival the black market in drugs and guns, it has become a significant part of the illicit global economy.
The fact that the paintings most likely have never traded hands for the half a billion they're worth doesn't mean that someone didn't make a lot of money on them -- even 5% of half a billion isn't exactly chump change.
posted by scody at 2:45 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh well. The police sketches of the suspects are awesome.

That they are. But I'm confused, Ron Jeremy was in on the heist?

I hate art thieves. Hate them.

I've never been particularly hate-filled when it comes to thieves. Art thieves, car thieves, pet monkey thieves.

I've always felt like there are far worse, much more harmful legal occupations out there.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2013


I also think the Whitey Bulger connection is an interesting one, as is the security guard who let the thieves into the building and is now shilling a book... my understanding is that stolen art is generally "commissioned"- a wealthy buyer wants something and pays for it. All sub rosa, of course.
As for the inability to show it publicly, knowing that I owned a priceless work of art and that no one else would ever be able to see it, that's part of the thrill.
Also, for all we know, the paintings ARE being displayed publicly someplace out of the way. If I saw a Rembrandt on display in a house I would assume it was legitimately acquired or maybe a fake. I don't think it's likely the pictures are on display, but I think it's marginally possible.
posted by pentagoet at 2:49 PM on March 18, 2013


Not everyone may be aware of this so it's worth mentioning: Mrs. Gardner in her will stipulated that the contents of the museum could not be rearranged, and no other artwork could be brought in. And if the museum Trustees were ever to do so, the entire kit and kaboodle — museum, art and endowment — is to be given to Harvard University and the proceeds used to "increase the salaries of professors of said college, or in sustaining scholarships."

I love little museums like this and the Barnes Foundation. Or even less restrictive museums like the McNay in San Antonio. All these eccentric collectors who wanted things done their way, dammit.
posted by immlass at 2:53 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never been particularly hate-filled when it comes to thieves.

Art thieves are possibly even worse than bicycle thieves, and bicycle thieves are the lowest of the low.
posted by ambrosia at 2:55 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The fact that the paintings most likely have never traded hands for the half a billion they're worth doesn't mean that someone didn't make a lot of money on them -- even 5% of half a billion isn't exactly chump change.

And not bad for a night's work.

Not to mention that until the stolen art is recovered, there remains something of a hostage situation. A famous work has value as a bargaining chip, as well. It may not be a get out of jail free card, but would certainly give the possessor a lot more bargaining power so long as that object remains unsecured.
posted by Capt. Renault at 2:58 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas.. Chinese Beaker? Who's that?

For just a moment, I pictured a tall, narrow, Asian Muppet with a tuft of hair at a canvas, painting a portrait of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in a version of Magritte's Son of Man, with a puzzled look on his face, wondering at what point that this particular concept for a painting went wrong.

I hesitated on googling for more info on it, as it could never live up to the image in my head.
posted by chambers at 3:05 PM on March 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Anthony Amore wrote a book on the theft of Rembrants, specifically. His finding (short video) is that the thieves are typically small-time crooks who simply do not understand how difficult it will be to fence the work. He claims, categorically, that "no one has ever made money stealing a Rembrandt."

a black market for stolen art really does factually exist

Of course it does. I'm arguing against two specific forms of that market: 1) the "rich art collector hires bad guys in order to complete his Monet collection." And 2) mobsters steal art to use as security or million-dollar banknote equivalents in drug deals. Neither of those strikes me as remotely plausible.

There's a ton of money to be made, obviously, stealing difficult-to-trace antiquities from Europe and Cambodia and China and so forth--and even stealing minor but collectable works from private residences. Where I do not see a useful or meaningful market is in stealing major, widely-published, easily-recognizable masterpieces by world-famous artists.
posted by yoink at 3:13 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yoink, you are no fun. I like the idea that these paintings are in some art lovers climate controlled vault lovingly tended by black market art wranglers. The alternative that they may be moldering in a cardboard tube in some Southie attic or hanging in full sun on the wall of a drug dealers summer condo is too depressing to consider.
posted by fshgrl at 3:14 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mrs. Gardner in her will stipulated that the contents of the museum could not be rearranged ...

Related:
In 2002, after a two-year master planning process, the museum’s board of trustees determined that a new wing was necessary to preserve the historic building and to provide improved spaces for programs that continue Isabella Gardner’s legacy.

... In March 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts approved the museum’s plans, confirming that the project is consistent with the primary purpose of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will and is in the public interest. The project also received approval from all relevant city and state preservation and development review agencies.
Renzo Piano's extension of the museum (opened last year).
posted by ericb at 3:20 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that these kinds of jobs were pulled at the behest of a James-Bond-movie kind of villain, who wants the paintings to sit in his specially built art room where only he can enjoy them. needs the pigment from the long-lost recipe used by Vermeer to activate the laser reflector on his space satellite and blackmail the world by threatening to fry London.
posted by dhartung at 3:23 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


... heck, given some paint and a blank canvas any one of the criminals involved could produce one.

Brings to mind this fascinating CBS Sunday Morning segment [video | 09:24] from two weeks ago about prolific art forger Ken Perenyi.
posted by ericb at 3:32 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


To continue spoiling the fun: Anthony Amore's book Stealing Rembrandts lets you "search inside" on Amazon. He specifically addresses the "drug deal collateral" notion on pp. 18-20. He says that there is very tenuous evidence, at best, of this ever having been done, and that the two or three documented cases of some kind of narco-money entanglement with art theft are very cloudy and uncertain. He also points out that there is no evidence of this ever having happened with a single stolen Rembrandt.

He says the typical art thief is someone with a long rap sheet for petty crime--knocking over gas stations and burglary etc. They hear about how "valuable" the works in some local museum are, figure out how to steal one of them, and only afterwards discover that they've gone to all that trouble to acquire something essentially useless to them. The savviest ones are the ones who realize that the only real value of the piece is in selling it back quietly to the insurers.
posted by yoink at 3:35 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wills relating to the establishment of museums are notoriously difficult to administer. The donors' best (or, in some instances, questionable) intentions often run afoul of unforeseen conditions over time and may result in situations not at all in the best interests of the collection or of the community/institution they seek to gift. Making donation instruments square with modern needs can be immensely costly and litigation-heavy for the giftee institution and may jeopardize their very survival.

I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prior to the addition of the new wing and was shocked at the low level of visible security. Here's hoping that that status has been remedied.
posted by Morrigan at 3:44 PM on March 18, 2013


I was in art school in Boston when this happened - after years and years of thinking about it, I always come back to Whitey Bulger.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:53 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


If he didn't do it, he knows who did.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:58 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


A few years after the thefts, I was a soloist with the Gardner Chamber Orchestra, which plays in the open space in the center of the museum. I was positioned one floor up, on a balcony overlooking the atrium, in the Dutch Room right next to one of the big empty frames. Even in this scenario, security was... comprehensive. I played every rehearsal and the concert with a very nice security guard sitting 2 feet away from me, just out of sight of the audience. At the time I thought, seriously, do they really think someone would go to the trouble of getting themselves hired to solo with an orchestra to get a shot at stealing the art? Then I'd look up at the empty frame and decide maybe I wasn't as clever as I thought, and keep my mouth shut.
posted by range at 4:09 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


So this is a no news news event.

Yeah ... that's why it's a lead story on ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC this evening.

'No news events' aren't included in the news ticker scrolling on the TV screen. CNN and MSNBC must be mistaken tonight. Better give them a call.
posted by ericb at 4:20 PM on March 18, 2013


Anthony Amore wrote a book on the theft of Rembrandts ...

He has spoken at the museum.

From the Gardner website: Conversation on Theft with Anthony Amore [video | 1:00:55] -- "Gardner Museum Security Director Anthony Amore sets the record straight regarding the theft. A conversation with NPR host Tom Ashbrook."
posted by ericb at 4:44 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prior to the addition of the new wing and was shocked at the low level of visible security. Here's hoping that that status has been remedied.
Mr. Amore, a former Homeland Security official who helped overhaul security at Logan International Airport here after the Sept. 11 attacks, said he has built a database of every lead that has come in since the theft. (Security at the Gardner is now “a step over” the standard for museums, he added.) He said he gets frequent tips ... *
posted by ericb at 4:50 PM on March 18, 2013


I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prior to the addition of the new wing and was shocked at the low level of visible security. Here's hoping that that status has been remedied.

I was just there on Saturday, and the (numerous!) guards were literally breathing down everyone's neck.
posted by MiaWallace at 5:08 PM on March 18, 2013


So this is a no news news event.

Yeah ... that's why it's a lead story on ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC this evening.

Oh yeah, something being on all the newswires autoMATICALLY makes it a news event!
posted by jscott at 6:21 PM on March 18, 2013


Well, MetaFilter is not a news site, so we're free to discuss it.
posted by dhartung at 6:40 PM on March 18, 2013


It's a law enforcement fishing expedition, though a similar one did lead to a former Miss Iceland collecting the reward for the capture of Whitey Bulger. Really.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:58 PM on March 18, 2013


Guy I know is the brother of one of the guards... yeah, gotta stop there...
posted by sammyo at 7:39 PM on March 18, 2013


Put me in the " they damn well know where the paintings are and the billboards will be placed on the way to said person's work, gym, club, etc" camp. They know they can't arrest the person so they are shaming them where they live
posted by slapshot57 at 10:08 PM on March 18, 2013


I hate art thieves. Hate them.

Them and art vandals. I'd rather see people die than see certain art works stolen or destroyed.
posted by pracowity at 12:29 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh well. The police sketches of the suspects are awesome.
posted by compartment at 4:30 PM on March 18

Commissioner Gordon no!
posted by ZaphodB at 1:05 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't they raid some local's attic a couple years ago? I can't remember enough details for a good search but I thought there was some sort of hospital bed admission of previous possession or something.
posted by maryr at 1:55 AM on March 19, 2013


I hate art thieves. Hate them.

Them and art vandals. I'd rather see people die than see certain art works stolen or destroyed.


Sorry but I really can't understand these sentiments. I love art, but the high-end art market just seems like a strange poker game played by the idle rich with no relevance to the rest of us.

And the necessity of seeing the original rather than a reproduction is a weird fetish too, when you think about it. I'm not saying I'm immune to it, but since so little art of significance can actually be on display at a particular place and time, it seems like the effect at the margin is tiny. I mean, would I get more pleasure out of seeing Picasso A in a museum and Picasso B reproduced in a book (because B is on some billionaire's wall or in another museum far away) than seeing Picasso C in the same museum (because A was stolen) and the other two in reproduced form?

When you look at it that way, art theft is among the more victimless crimes out there, right? And it's more a crime against the art market than against art itself.
posted by pete_22 at 6:01 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the Gardner, for me, it was less about "Oooh look at the important, expensive art" and more a deep feeling (I spent a lot of time there) of connection to Gardner. These were works she chose, this is the place she built to house them, these were items that were important to her. And she made it so that people who are not rich could spend time looking at them. Those assholes didn't just steal paintings off a wall that no one except the owner was ever going to see. They stole them so that (they hoped) only one person would ever be able to look at them.

I took Art 101 or whatever it was called in college, and we spent a lot of time in an auditorium looking at slides, and I became enamored with Caravaggio and his use of light and perspective. Then I went to New York for spring break and there was an exhibit at the Met (I think, probably). Seeing the paintings in person was a revelation.

I lived in DC for years, and got spoiled by all the free art at the Smithsonians. When I go back to visit, I always try to go see some of my favorites at American Art and the Portrait Gallery. It's like visiting friends.

I know that there are works I'll never see in person; I'll probably never get to [whatever] museum in [faraway place] to see [works by whomever]. But I know they're there, and that other people like me can go see them.

I get that some people don't get this, or they feel differently. That's fine, I guess. But that's why I hate art thieves. It feels like they stole part of my past, they stole opportunity from other people, they stole the gift that Gardner gave to the public. Assholes.
posted by rtha at 6:18 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


And it's more a crime against the art market than against art itself.

Because stealing art from a museum has what to do with the art market? Museums like the Gardner make work available to everyone regardless of its potential commercial value. Your argument is ridiculous.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:51 AM on March 19, 2013


Didn't they raid some local's attic a couple years ago?

I think you may be thinking about this unrelated case that involved theft from a Massachusetts resident, not a museum. Among the works recovered there was a Cézanne, I believe.
posted by Jugwine at 6:58 AM on March 19, 2013


Because stealing art from a museum has what to do with the art market? Museums like the Gardner make work available to everyone regardless of its potential commercial value. Your argument is ridiculous.

Look, I'm not saying art theft is a nice thing to do, just that hatred and "I'd rather see people die" are overly strong reactions.

Museums are absolutely participants in the art market, though some more than others I guess. In any case, I'll stand by what I said about high-profile art theft being more of a crime against the market. Look at it this way: if a few of the least valuable paintings in the Gardner had been stolen, would anyone remember or care about it today? Would it be on Metafilter, provoking people's righteous fury? I doubt it. But would the average visitor's experience of the museum really be that much worse?

Now, the Taliban destroying Buddha statues, or other forms of censorship, that's an attack on art itself. But something like this ...or another example, when that Rothko was defaced last year, and everyone on my Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded in rage. I just don't get it. Can't we appreciate Rothko without venerating the original object itself as though it's the fucking shroud of Turin?
posted by pete_22 at 8:00 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


An attack on a Rothko is not an attack on the art itself, but the destruction of the Buddhas was?

The Taliban stole the opportunity from everyone to see those statues, even if most people on the planet were never going to get there. The thieves at the Gardner stole that, too.

You can still see pictures of the Buddhas. That's just the same, isn't it? (It isn't.)
posted by rtha at 8:05 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm distinguishing motives, not outcomes. The Taliban were indifferent to the monetary value of the Buddhas; they destroyed them explicitly to prevent them from being seen.

By contrast, the Gardner thieves presumably took the paintings because they could make a lot of money selling them, because scarce, high profile art is a status symbol for rich people.

Similarly, the guy who defaced the Rothko did so because it had such a high market value. That was what made it a "statement." Not the content of the work itself.

Again, I agree that all three did a bad thing. I just think the second two cases are not AS bad. And when I see that this guy is actually in jail for his Rothko stunt, that seems like a troubling overreaction to me.
posted by pete_22 at 8:15 AM on March 19, 2013


People destroy art all the time. They leave condoms in Etruscan tombs, they steal fragments of the Colosseum, they leave red wine glasses on top of porous materials at galleries. You heard about the Rothko incident because it does have a high market value, and it's always more impressive to hear about millions of dollars. The woman who painted over the Jesus in Spain isn't in jail, though she too destroyed thousands of dollars of art, art that may well never be restored. There are pictures of the original fresco, but it will never be the same again-- never have the same context again, the same depth again, the same information about the pigments and the brushstrokes again. In the case of the Rothko, it will take $318,000 to restore it. That's a lot of money. Two years does seem extreme (but then, maybe English courts do early releases too?) Do you tell someone whose car was keyed or their house windows smashed that it doesn't matter, it's basically victimless?
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2013


Look at it this way: if a few of the least valuable paintings in the Gardner had been stolen, would anyone remember or care about it today? Would it be on Metafilter, provoking people's righteous fury? I doubt it. But would the average visitor's experience of the museum really be that much worse?

Considering that museums usually have more works of art than space to show them off even the 'least valuable' (as in money valuation?) paintings can be pretty important. Haven't you ever been impressed by a minor work or a minor artist?

Similarly, the guy who defaced the Rothko did so because it had such a high market value. That was what made it a "statement." Not the content of the work itself.

The high-market value is due to the content of the work itself though, especially in Rothko's case. Art thieves and defacers are reducing access to our common cultural heritage, which in my books is worse than stealing money because art is not fungible. And, like I've said in art threads before, seeing a photograph is a distinct and sub-par experience compared to seeing the original work of art, especially for works with rich texture.
posted by ersatz at 9:47 AM on March 19, 2013


I just think the second two cases are not AS bad. And when I see that this guy is actually in jail for his Rothko stunt, that seems like a troubling overreaction to me.

Outcome was the same, as you said. In the Taliban instance, no one can see the statues now. In the Rothko and Gardner instances, no one can see the art anymore. Theft and vandalism are crimes even if they're committed against things you personally don't care about.
posted by rtha at 10:00 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Gungho: Um, no they haven't. They haven't publicly identified anyone. They haven't publicly placed even the temporary location of any of the artworks. So this is a no news news event.
The FPP makes neither of the claims you are pretending to refute. Please read it again.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:54 AM on March 19, 2013


Look at it this way: if a few of the least valuable paintings in the Gardner had been stolen, would anyone remember or care about it today?

Reducing Rembrandt, and Vermeer paintings to their supposed current economic value is a pretty narrow way of putting it. Art theft never happened before the the growth of the art market?
posted by R. Mutt at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2013


The high-market value is due to the content of the work itself though, especially in Rothko's case.

The relative market value of a Rothko compared to some lesser artist may be about the content of the work, but 90% of the absolute dollar value comes from this weird, distorted market that's all about status and signalling among the ultra-rich.

seeing a photograph is a distinct and sub-par experience compared to seeing the original work of art, especially for works with rich texture.

Agreed in this case, but if that's your standard for why the original object is so important, what about a competent replica by another skilled painter? Why aren't these replicas made more often? And what about art photography, where a good copy is essentially identical? In fact, why aren't there enough large-format Cindy Sherman prints for every museum in the world that wants one? Because of the artificial scarcity demanded by the market.

Why do we tolerate this level of tight control over supply in visual art, when we would never tolerate it in, say, music or literature? What if David Foster Wallace only allowed ten copies of Infinite Jest to be printed, and you had to go read them in a museum where they turned the pages once a day like Gutenberg Bibles? Would you be grateful to the generous collectors who made them available to the public, or just annoyed at the whole spectacle?

Of course it varies across media, a textured painting is harder to accurately replicate than a photo, a sculpture harder still, etc. But I'm arguing that Rothko's main achievement as an artist stands apart from any particular physical object he created. Needing to see the original is like wanting a celebrity's autograph, it's a kind of magical thinking. Which is not to say it's wrong, just that we should keep it in perspective.
posted by pete_22 at 11:56 AM on March 19, 2013


Gungho: Um, no they haven't. They haven't publicly identified anyone. They haven't publicly placed even the temporary location of any of the artworks. So this is a no news news event.

The FPP makes neither of the claims you are pretending to refute. Please read it again.
posted by IAmBroom An hour ago [+]


How can you identify someone without naming them? I mean why go to all the trouble of a press conference to say "I know something you don't know"? Incidentally, when quizzed after the press conference the head of the Gardiner Museum security wouldn't even say if the suspects were dead or alive as he felt that information could compromise the investigation.
posted by Gungho at 12:54 PM on March 19, 2013


Why aren't these replicas made more often?

They are, though replicating texture (especially for old oils-- is matching the craquelure even possible?) isn't easy and a good replica would be extremely expensive. That's aside from studying the materials themselves or previous drafts under the top coat or the other aspects that you can only understand through the original. 3D printing is something some museums are branching out into, and there have been some recent posts on the blue about that. Casts have a long and storied tradition within art history, though they sort of fell out of style for a while. I suspect 3D printing will restart some interest in the idea.

In fact, why aren't there enough large-format Cindy Sherman prints for every museum in the world that wants one? Because of the artificial scarcity demanded by the market.

No, it's because Cindy Sherman owns the copyright and hasn't chosen to release more of them. That's not a museum market issue, it's an artist one.

Needing to see the original is like wanting a celebrity's autograph, it's a kind of magical thinking.

Sometimes. I didn't like Klimt until I saw his works in Los Angeles, and then those were transcendentally beautiful. Audiences are often not kind to replicas, no matter how precise and perfect they may be. And some media just can't be replicated. Regardless, a replica is just that, a replica. Isabella Stewart Gardner wanted the originals-- the breathtaking, irreplaceable originals-- to be available to everyone through her museum. It would be a good thing for those visitors to have them back.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:57 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


spitbull: "Although "go get me the Gardner Museum" is a hell of an order. I wonder how much you have to tip on something like that."

"Is it considered rude not to tip the art thief who took your order?" /Seinfeld
posted by krinklyfig at 2:06 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gungho: How can you identify someone without naming them? I mean why go to all the trouble of a press conference to say "I know something you don't know"? Incidentally, when quizzed after the press conference the head of the Gardiner Museum security wouldn't even say if the suspects were dead or alive as he felt that information could compromise the investigation.
OK, I'll make this as simple as possible: as the FPP states, the police have announced that they believe they know who the perps were. Nothing said whatsoever about them publicly identifying the bad guys. This is basically one step up from the typical police statement that they "have a person of interest". There are already multiple reasons proffered in this thread about why they might want to do that, but letting Gungho know those reasons is not high on their priority list right now.

I have identified my boss. I know who he is. I'm not naming him here. Why does that translate in your head to "IAmBroom has never been able to identify his boss"?
posted by IAmBroom at 2:32 PM on March 19, 2013


I didn't like Klimt until I saw his works in Los Angeles, and then those were transcendentally beautiful.

I didn't "get" Rothko until I was in a roomful of them. It was at the Phillips, in DC, and at the time a friend of ours worked there. We went to pick him up one night after we'd been to dinner (and okay drinks) and he let us wander while he finished up. I went into the Rothko room and they were vibrating. Shimmering. I lay down on the floor and watched them dance.

A couple years ago we were in London and spent at day at the British Museum, looking at Roman artifacts. To be able to see the thing - the silver plate, the gold cloak pin - the artifact that more often than not was found by some kid playing on a stream bank or a farmer tilling a field, this thing that was made by a person and handled and carried and hauled from here to there by people, almost two thousand years ago...

It's different from seeing a replica. A replica isn't necessarily "worse", but it is not the same as the object it replicates.
posted by rtha at 2:52 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Of course it varies across media, a textured painting is harder to accurately replicate than a photo, a sculpture harder still, etc. But I'm arguing that Rothko's main achievement as an artist stands apart from any particular physical object he created. Needing to see the original is like wanting a celebrity's autograph, it's a kind of magical thinking. Which is not to say it's wrong, just that we should keep it in perspective.

If you find yourself in London, memail me and we can go to Tate Modern to see some Rothko. I don't disagree that market valuation has a lot to do with name recognition (thus crazy prices for Picasso because most people know him and he serves as a status symbol) and I think I get what you're saying that breaking new ground is important in itself and that a reproduction of an expressionist painting, say, transmits what the painter is getting at, but the notion but the paintings/sculptures etc. themselves are important too. As for reproductions, they can be hit or miss. I won't claim I could necessarily recognise when one of them is a miss, especially when I haven't seen the original, but would you rather see the original and know that you are forming an impression of the artifact itself or trust in the skills of a copier? The fidelity of copying books is significantly better and practically 1:1, so that comparison is off the mark.
posted by ersatz at 4:15 PM on March 19, 2013


OK, I'll make this as simple as possible: as the FPP states, the police have announced that they believe they know who the perps were.

So do I. I think it was Whitey and Vinny and Earl the Pearl. Which is just as useless as the "information" provided during the press conference. I have heard dozens of times that "insert name here is wanted for questioning at this time." for any number of other crimes, but in this case, where the statute of limitations is long expired they won't even name a person of interest? smells as fishy as pier one.
posted by Gungho at 7:33 AM on March 20, 2013


CNN will be airing the documentary "81 Minutes: Inside the Greatest Art Heist in History" at 10 p.m. ET tomorrow (Friday).
posted by ericb at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2013


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