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Worth the Risk

By (March 1, 2009) One Comment

The Gardner Heist:
The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft

By Ulrich Boser
HarperCollins, 2009

In a large, nondescript suburban home, a man walks down to his basement and moves with confidence through the gloom to an interior wall. The man is middle-aged and well-dressed; his face is fleshy and vaguely satisfied, and his eyes are completely lifeless. He presses a panel concealed behind some old paint cans, and a hidden door clicks open. The man descends a short staircase and enters a dimly lit room, finding his way to the chair in the center more by routine than by sight. When he’s sitting comfortably, he touches a control by the armrest and slowly brightens the room’s recessed lights. The little space is far from sunlight, but it has glory shining from its walls.  

On the left-hand wall, there is a brooding café scene, a work of stark and unapologetic intensity, a man staring at the viewer over his drink on a Paris street. This is Manet’s Chez Tortoni.

On the right-hand wall is a much more vigorous picture: the crew of a sailing vessel desperately trying to combat fierce winds, dark skies, and towering waves. Light and dark seem to vie for mastery of the painting, and the focal point is the viewer. This is Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

On the center wall, directly in front of the sitting viewer, is a third canvas, more luminous than the other two. A wide-shouldered man sits playing a zither, while a woman on one side of him plays the harpsichord and a woman on the other side sings. This is Vermeer’s The Concert.

Perhaps the viewer of these paintings comes down here at the beginning of his day, to sit in silent wonder for a few moments before confronting the world. Perhaps he comes to see them when his day is done, to salve whatever disappointments he might be feeling by gazing with proprietary calm at these masterpieces that are his alone to see.

They are his alone not just because he paid dearly for them, although he did – from the very large outlay of untraceable cash needed to cover the shipping and holding costs, to the smaller but still formidable amount necessary to build this basement viewing room in total secrecy, hiring separate contractors in different years, to the relatively insignificant fees involved in hiring men to hire men to hire men to do that actual physical acquiring of the artwork.

No, these works are his alone by virtue of the suffering he has endured for their sake, because for nearly twenty years, he has varnished them with self-control and polished them every day with denial: in all this time, he has not shared them with one other living soul. And if the illicit joy of that has long since faded, the obligation has not. A single other person knowing of the existence of this little room could destroy this man’s world and send him to prison for the rest of his life. He cannot risk that, so he is always alone when he views his treasures. He belongs to them as much as they do to him.

In the world of art theft hypotheticals, this scenario is common. It’s even comforting, in a perverse way: at least this theft, this wound to the public weal, was carefully, meticulously intended. If it were random or even impromptu, that would be worse. Indifference is always the final insult to art.

So it’s no surprise that such a scenario was among the first envisioned by the Boston press in the wake of the infamous robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the largest art theft in history (not counting those perpetrated by the Nazis, of course), in which these three paintings, two more Rembrandts, a Manet, several other paintings and sketches, the finial from a Napoleonic battle-flag, and an ancient Chinese beaker were stolen. After midnight on 18 March 1990, two men posing as Boston policemen were buzzed into the venerable Fenway museum created in 1889 by its eponymous airhead millionairess.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Rachel Burgess

The two security guards on duty had simple instructions from that museum: let no one in after hours, no exceptions whatsoever, period. When these instructions proved not simple enough (or when greed overcame them – both guards were immediately suspected of complicity in the theft, especially since according to the museum’s motion detectors, one of them was the last person to enter the Manet’s room before the painting disappeared), the guards found themselves duct-taped, gagged, and handcuffed while the thieves – after admitting who knows how many accomplices – went about their work.

That work, that epic robbery, is the subject of Ulrich Boser’s fast-paced, sleekly captivating new book The Gardner Heist, but Boser is too thorough – or perhaps he would say obsessed – a writer to narrow his focus so tightly; his book is the whole world of the Gardner robbery, from a history of the museum to a quick portrait of its legendary benefactress and her raucous times (her stern, adoring husband, Jack Gardner, also gets a mention, as does Bernard Berenson, the unscrupulous rodent Mrs. Gardner used as her agent in conducting all her well-financed looting of the Old World to furnish her new palazzo), to an approvingly detailed – loving, really – mini-biography of Harold Smith, the flamboyant, indefatigable art theft investigator who died in 2005 and whose legacy (and copious notes) Boser takes upon himself. Boser is the first to acknowledge that he may have taken on Smith’s fixed mania as well (Boser’s long-suffering wife is the second, reminding her husband at one point to “take a shower every couple of days”).

Smith frequently derided – and Boser follows his lead – that opening scenario of a massive art theft being organized by one man from a safe remove (how justified they are in doing so, we shall see). Instead, Boser concentrates on more local leads, including a large and colorful cast of potential suspects, ranging from petty grifters and con men to psychics and third-rate extortionists to well-known art thieves (most of whom were unhelpfully incarcerated at the time of the Gardner job – a fact which stops none of them from taking the credit for it anyway) and stick-up men, to players of one caliber or another in the world of organized crime, at the top of which sits semi-legendary South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who has been on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list almost as long as Osama bin Laden. Because we live in a wicked world, Bulger is everywhere (including in Boser’s book) referred to somewhat wistfully as a grand figure, though a rogue one. And because this is a stupid world, writers have always found it easy to refer to a snide, dimwitted brute like Bulger as a “criminal mastermind” – and so, someone easily capable of conceiving a complex art theft like that of the Gardner Museum.

Boser certainly holds this out as a possibility, and because he’s not only a capable reporter but a first-rate storyteller, he chases down that possibility and every other one in a case that grows more tangled and complicated with every passing year. The Gardner was violated on a rainy Saint Patrick’s Day morning; the thieves and their accomplices did a minimal amount of damage, left behind not a single piece of physical evidence about themselves, and took away a minimal and bewildering array of pieces (five minor Degas sketches were taken, while works by Rubens, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo were left untouched). And when the whole thing became public the next day, all chance of getting at the truth of the matter quickly was lost in the maze of claims and counter-claims immediately made by every low-life Boston thief and fence in a four mile radius.

Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Boser interviews virtually all of these men (the ones who are still living, that is, although even a fair number of dead men – shot, stabbed, garroted, stuffed-in-trunks dead men, get their fifteen minutes of fame in The Gardner Heist), and all of them sound exactly alike. This isn’t Boser’s fault; it’s a natural by-product of talking to one liar after another. We’ll let Clive/Charley/Colin stand in for the whole lot:

I once rang up an English stolen art fence who claimed that his name was Clive, but he wanted to be called Charley, although it seemed that he was actually the informant code-named Colin. When I first got him on the phone, he told me that he had never seen the Gardner art, not a single drawing. But as we started talking, his story began to change, and by the end of the interview, he was positive that he had seen the Vermeer. It was in a house west of Dublin. The painting was on the floor, and now that he thought about it, there was no way that he could be mistaken. He was 100 percent sure, absolutely certain, that he had seen the Old Master canvas. Then his cell phone cut out. I called him back a dozen times, but I never heard from him again.

Clive/Charley/Colin might have slipped away from Boser, but some local Boston figures are always ready to take his next phone call. There’s pathetic life-long thief Myles Connor and his garrulous, cheerfully amoral lawyer Marty Leppo, who perfectly embodies the central problem with any investigation of something as well-publicized as the Gardner robbery: an abundance of lullepraat. Leppo is full of this objectionable substance, as when he tells Boser this:

I pressed Leppo for more details on the Gardner lead, and he told me that the person who took control of the art had deep connections to the Boston mob as well as a relative who was in the art business. He believed that the person had stashed the loot somewhere outside of Boston. “The paintings were cut from their frame. How far could they go in that condition?” he said. “But you have to go to the West Coast, you have to go to West Palm Beach, and you have to go to Israel.”

But you might want to hold off on booking your plane tickets, since only a paragraph earlier Leppo was telling Boser this:

“I’m pretty sure from my sources that the stuff went to a church in South Boston with a gay priest and then it was split up,” he said. “The Storm is gone forever, in my opinion. Someone else had The Concert. The key to the whole thing might be the top of the flagpole [the finial taken from a Napoleonic battle-flag]. I was close to it a few years ago, and everyone got spooked. But really, nobody knows where that stuff is, except the people who eventually ended up with it.”

The bragging innuendo of every larcenous soul in the corrupt old American city of Boston notwithstanding, the Gardner case has a lack of truly known facts that is unique in the annals of art theft. And all the correlatives about it that are known are very sad indeed. Boser talked to the Gardner staff about all the things the offered $5 million reward will never be able to buy:

The one thing [Gardner conservator Gianfranco] Pocobene knows for sure is that the stolen paintings have suffered some irreversible harm. The thieves knifed the two Rembrandts from the frames, and although Pocobene might be able to repair some of that damage, he will never be able to fully restore the canvases. The paints will always show some sign of desecration. And the potential for far greater damage remains unnervingly real. Over the course of centuries, wood grows brittle, paint cracks, canvases become as flexible as a piece of glass. If the thieves ever dropped the Vermeer, the fragile stretcher would most likely shatter, leaving the loose canvas to turn and twist, the painting falling from the surface like crumbs from a piece of burnt toast. “If you have a tear and 20 to 40 percent loss of painting chips from rolling and unrolling, there’s probably not a lot we can do. I’m not saying that painting will be ruined. But you’ll always see that damage.”

Vermeer’s The Concert

He also spoke with hundreds of people who feel the loss of the Gardner artworks in a way most of them cannot rationally explain. One day you can go into a great art museum and walk right up to a beautiful work of art, stare at it from mere inches away, walk around the room looking at it, back up and take it in from some other distance – you can visually play with it, in a way not allowed by a photograph of the same work. And the next day, that work is gone and there’s an empty frame. Boser tries to get at the heart of the turmoil this can create:

But the lost art – even the missing Vermeer – doesn’t fully explain the power of the Gardner case, why so many visit the museum to see the empty frames, why dozens of authors, artists, and academics have thrown themselves at the caper’s mystery. When I spoke to Gardner obsessives, they couldn’t quite explain it either; they always talked about the theft as something intensely personal, often reaching for metaphors in the way that people do when they want to comprehend something that is incomprehensible. Some say the theft is like having something ripped from their soul. Others compare the burglary to the death of a family member. Imagine you can never hear a Verdi Requiem or a Beethoven symphony again. Just erased. Imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Erased,” the director of the museum told me.

(He’s uniformly good at evoking the hair-raising personal elements of the crime, as in his gripping recreation of the robbery itself:

The men move back up to the first floor [after securing the security guards]. The museum is now as helpless as an upended turtle. There are no other defenses – no secret wires, no hidden video cameras, no other guards. There’s no other way for the police to know that the museum has been taken over by thieves. For all intents and purposes, the intruders now own the Gardner museum – and they begin to act like it, padding up the marble steps of the grand staircase and striding into the Dutch Room.)

But Boser is equally frank about the psychological effect something like the Gardner theft can have on its investigators, too, and he does not exempt himself. As his book moves deeper and deeper into the murky world of art theft, his vocabulary starts acquiring more and more tough-guy slang from American gangster movies (suspects are “looked at” for crimes, people “snoop,” things get “sized up,” and the robbery itself begins being referred to exclusively as a “heist”). And with such identification comes understandable – albeit regrettable – loss of perspective. Even veteran investigators sometimes fall prey to the foremost temptation of their job: confusing an abundance of leads with a proximity to truth. Boser does a good deal of travelling in the course of his research (although I don’t remember if he goes to Israel), but most of his effort is spent in Boston and Ireland, “the next parish over” – because those are the two places with the highest concentration of people willing to talk about the Gardner robbery, claim they know things about the Gardner robbery, or claim they took part in the Gardner robbery.

In the course of Boser’s book, it quickly becomes apparent that every single one of these people is motivated by that $5 million reward. If you took away not only the reward but all previous knowledge of a reward – or, indeed, if you went further and took away all publically-accessible knowledge of the details of the crime itself – you would be left with a couple of dozen wretched South Boston and West Cork boneheads who wouldn’t know Manet from Manny Ramirez. Articles like the ones that inspired Boser – and books like the one he has written – have fed with precise details a monster born of bragging pride and weasly deal-making, as every con and ex-con with the ability to lie came forward to lie about what happened that night in 1990.

And yet the possibility that some isolated individual somewhere in the world might be benefitting from this state of affairs – that one man (Boser refers to him as “Dr. No,” alluding to a nefarious James Bond villain) might have decided in 1980 that he wanted to own some of the artwork he saw while touring the Gardner Museum (perhaps in a crowd of similar tourists) and spent the following decade planning exactly the way to make that happen – is one of the first possibilities Boser – and before him Smith – dismisses:

But when I asked [Harold] Smith about a Dr. No, he gave a soft, admonishing chuckle. He didn’t think much of the theory because he had never seen a gossamer of proof. In his decades of experience, he never found a secret stash of stolen paintings in a billionaire’s mansion or caught an art thief who actually worked on behalf of one. Nor had any other art investigator or law enforcement official that he was aware of. While collectors will occasionally purchase works with weak provenance – and maybe a crook might put a stolen Hopper on his wall to impress his friends – millionaire art-lovers just don’t seem to snap up looted paintings or broker art heists. It’s not worth the risk.

You can see the weak spot in that paragraph, yes? There are two reasons why Smith might never have come across a secret stash of stolen paintings or met an art thief who procured such a staff for some wealthy backer: the first is that such things don’t exist – but the second is because not coming across their existence is one of their defining characteristics. “It’s not worth the risk,” Boser writes – which is true, unless it is worth the risk, in which case it isn’t true anymore. I once walked fifteen long city blocks in a cold rain in search of a cup of hot chocolate I suddenly felt I simply couldn’t live without. It was late, there were no taxis, and I knew a place: nothing would deter me, because I couldn’t live without my desire. I can easily imagine someone in the grip of a desire infinitely worse than that, and what they might do to satisfy it – I think most of Boser’s readers will be able to imagine that, and maybe they’ll be slower to dismiss the chance that somewhere, somebody acted on that desire, that unbearable urge to possess a Rembrandt, a Manet, or one of the world’s tiny number of Vermeers.

Boser relates a story from early in the Gardner investigation:

In 1992, two women teaching English in Japan were invited into the house of one of their students, an eccentric Japanese art collector, who claimed to own The Storm. When the women returned to the States, they told the FBI about the canvas. It took six months of diplomatic wrangling, but eventually Falzone and a Gardner curator flew to Japan on the first American search warrant ever issued in that country. They entered the man’s house with a half-dozen Japanese agents, but within a moment of eyeballing the painting, even [FBI agent Dan] Falzone could tell that it was a crude by-the-numbers imitation.

It’s enough to give his readers a chill. These two women know enough about art to recognize the Rembrandt, they tell the FBI enough about the painting to motivate six months of international back-and-forth, and yet what’s waiting at the end of the story? A child’s paint-by-numbers set that wouldn’t have fooled anybody in the first place. We’re told Agent Falzone, a Gardner curator, and several Japanese agents raided the house in question, and we’re left wondering: were the two women invited along? And if they had been, might they have looked at that crude painting and said, “That’s not what we saw six months ago”?

And in that six months, what word of the “diplomatic wrangling” might have reached that eccentric art collector, and what steps might he – or someone like him – have taken? Look around the room where you’re reading this, and pick an object about two feet by three (a poster, perhaps): what could you do with that object, if you had six months’ warning that you had to do something? What couldn’t you do, in that much time?

Jan van Doop is an art history graduate of a prominent Delft university and is a lifelong student in the aesthetics of Vermeer. He has never been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or anywhere in its vicinity.

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