Art History

The Biggest Art Theft in American History

The Biggest Art Theft in American History


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Historical Art Theft Leaves Empty Frames

A trip to Boston included a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see paintings by Sargent, Whistler and Zorn. (Members of The Artist’s Road can see the complete article here: Plein Air Painting in the Boston Public Garden).

The museum buildings consist of Mrs. Gardner’s fabulous mansion and a newer, modern glass addition blended together. It is worth the trip to the museum just to see and walk around her house, which features a three-story garden atrium at the center.

Designed by William T. Sears and completed in 1903, Fenway Court, as it was called during Mrs. Gardner’s day, is in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo and was built specifically to house Mrs. Gardner’s remarkable collection of art, furniture and artifacts from around the world. Except that, there are empty frames on some of the walls.

Mrs. Gardner was devoted to the idea that art was powerfully redemptive and stipulated in her will that no changes could be made in the galleries. Nothing in the original house could be added or taken away, not even a bamboo window shade.

Even the dim lighting in the galleries has remained the same. Any changes would require the entire collection be sold off and the proceeds donated to Harvard University.

March 18, 1990, was the night two thieves dressed as policemen talked their way into the museum after hours, overpowered the two guards and stole 13 of the world’s most valuable oil paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Flinck — estimated to be worth $500 million today.

The FBI has been chasing leads on this art theft for decades. And, until recently, no one who knew anything about the thieves or the whereabouts of the paintings.

Double the Reward

The Gardner Heist is still one of the largest art crimes in U.S. history. Following the theft, a $5 million reward was offered up for information or the return of the art.

The museum followed a lead trying to recover the lost Vermeer painting, The Concert. Unfortunately, that was a dead end. The reward for information was doubled to $10 million in May 2017 with plans to revert back to $5 if no one came forward by Jan 1, 2018.

However, this past January the museum announced it has extended the $10 million reward indefinitely. “This reward demonstrates the commitment of the Museum and its Board of Trustees to the recovery of these important works,” said Steve Kidder, Gardner Museum’s board president, in a statement. “We are the only buyer for these works, and they belong in their rightful home.”

The reward is one of the largest offered by a private institution. However, the museum worries the paintings have either deteriorated or been destroyed since the theft.

To keep them in good condition, whoever has them would have had to take pains to store them out of the light at no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity for the last 23 years.

Following New Leads, a Detective on the Case

Solving such a famous art theft involving 13 different pieces of art isn’t an easy task. But, a Dutch private investigator has taken on the challenge.

Arthur Brand is responsible for recovering many high-profile stolen artworks. He is currently following fresh leads and believes the paintings will be recovered.

Brand told artnet news, “It’s the holy grail. It’s the biggest case you can imagine.”

The investigator is known as the “Indiana Jones of the art world.” He has had quite a few successes in solving other art theft cases. For instance, Brand helped return multiple paintings stolen from the Netherlands’ Westfries Museum and Sheringa Museum of Realist Art.

“I’ve cracked some huge cases,” Brand boasts. “Locating the [stolen art] is almost always the hardest part. You have to ask around in the underworld — sometimes it takes years — and then you have to negotiate.”

The FBI and Anthony Amore, security director of the Gardner museum, believe the stolen pieces have remained in the U.S. Brand claims he has traced the paintings to Ireland. And further tips suggest connections with the Netherlands. The investigator is exploring all possibilities to recover the priceless art.

“It’s not about who did it anymore,” adds Brand. “It’s about getting these pieces back. [The art is] world heritage!”

For more information on the stolen Gardner Museum paintings, including a list of the stolen art, see the FBI Art Theft website.


Watch the video: The Greatest Thieves In History (June 2022).


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