What is it about art theft that intrigues us?
Is it the supposed erudition of those planning the heist, and the audacity of those who carry out the almost-glamorous mission?
Whatever entertainment we might derive from seeing art theft on the screen or from reading about it in a book, when art thieves strike close to home, the reality is grotesque and disturbing.
Take the famous case of the 1990 theft of 13 masterworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It is now 29 years since the robbery—will the paintings ever be recovered?
At least one man is optimistic that they will be found and returned, and that’s Anthony M. Amore, the security director at the Gardner Museum since 2005. With former Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg, Amore is the author of the 2011 bestselling book “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists.” He is a frequent lecturer on art crime and also provides on-air analysis on security and terrorism issues for both local and national media outlets.
“There are a number of reasons to remain hopeful that the art will be recovered,” Amore said in an email interview last week. “Yes, the passage of time does have some impact. But mainly I’d say that the FBI and I are working relentlessly to bring them home, and I believe our efforts will pay off.”
Amore will speak at the Eldredge Public Library on Sept. 8 about what he calls the three most important art thefts in Massachusetts, “and I would argue in history,” he adds. All three involved Rembrandts. The thefts occurred in 1973 at the Worcester Art Museum, in 1975 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in 1990 at the Gardner Museum. In his talk, Amore will explain why he believes those three thefts are so significant.
And why Rembrandt? The 17th century Dutch artist has always been a major target for art thieves, partly because he was so prolific. It is estimated that 2,000 of his works exist today. Also, Rembrandt is a well-known Old Master. To compare something to a Rembrandt means it is the best of its kind, the way people speak of things like “the Cadillac of beers.” One Rembrandt was stolen (and recovered) four times between 1966 and 1983 from the same London gallery, putting it into the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the most frequently-stolen painting in history.
In Massachusetts, stealing Rembrandts began back in 1937, when two drawings were removed from the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge. In 1972, a thief named Florian “Al” Monday masterminded the broad daylight theft of an oil painting called “St. Bartholomew” from the Worcester Art Museum. That theft marked the first use of a gun, a .22-caliber revolver, to rob a museum. Three years later, the oil painting “Portrait of Elisabeth van Rijn,” was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1990 “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” “Portrait of a Lady and a Gentleman in Black” and a 1634 etching “Self-Portrait” were all taken from the Gardner. The thieves apparently intended to take an earlier self-portrait from 1629. It was found leaning against a chest.
In his talk, Amore will touch upon “the reality of art theft: who really does these sort of crimes, why, and what becomes of the art,” he says.
The title of chapter one in “Stealing Rembrandts” clues us into the reality of the situation. In “There Is No ‘Dr. No,’” the authors disabuse us of “the notion that a sinister and elusive tycoon has masterminded and commissioned a museum robber; has employed professional, technologically brilliant thieves to carry out the crime; and has provided his specialists with a strict 'shopping list' based on his refined sensibilities.” However, the authors write, “the reality is far more grimy and far less romantic.” Major art theft is committed by “common criminals associated with local crime gangs” and petty offenders such as burglars, armored-car robbers and drug dealers. In fact, many of the thieves in “Stealing Rembrandts” are bumbling idiots who forget to pull down their ski masks, and even attract attention by walking inside a museum’s roped-off area or smoking cigarettes.
The Gardner Museum gained a certain notoriety with the 1990 theft. But, Amore says, while “there are many people who come to the museum knowing only of the missing paintings, none of them leave thinking about the empty frames. Instead, they leave with the images of our thousands of remaining works in their minds—not to mention our incredible courtyard. We are much, much more than a museum where a heist took place.”
Amore will be the opening speaker for the Edna May Hardy Speaker Series at the Eldredge Public Library on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 3 p.m. Proceeds from the suggested donation of $10 at the door will go support the library. Amore’s books “Stealing Rembrandts” and “The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World,” will be available for sale after his talk. For more information call the library at 508-945-5170.