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Art History

by Peter Joseph

What I really wanted to see was hanging upstairs, in the Dutch Room Gallery ... it's nothing but a few empty frames.

A few days after Christmas, a couple of friends and I made the trip from the suburbs into Boston to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Ms. Gardner, one of Boston's legendary arts patrons at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, had originally christened her made-to-order museum the Fenway Court. Today, it feels less like a royal manor and more like the mouldering home of a rich old aunt. Boston's gray winter light filters through its small, sporadic windows, dampened by bolts of velvet curtain and the dark woodcabinets that display the Gardner's heirlooms. You find yourself squinting, bending closer to the glass case until — ah — you discover a row of yellowing letters written by past presidents.

Much of the Gardner collection's allure comes not just from its wealth of surprises and idiosyncrasies, but also from the certainty that, no matter how often you visit the museum, you will probably never discover everything. Many items have no identifying tags to help a visitor along, and the rare books and other miscellanea are crowded into shadowy cases. Though I could find pictures of both objects on the museum's website, during my visit I could not find the actual James McNeill Whistler's Wand (bamboo) nor the gold-and-glass locket containing Robert Browning's hair.

But there are other, less esoteric reasons to keep visiting the Gardner. Ms. Gardner amassed a spotty yet impressive collection of paintings. Plus, there's a slightly illicit thrill in seeing great works of art arranged not by a conscientiously bureaucratic museum curator but by a collector who often seems most concerned with matching her art with the furniture (the building's fourth floor even included a bedroom for Ms. Gardner).

Ms. Gardner's tastes were largely focused on Renaissance artists such as Titian and Raphael (even the building was designed to evoke a 15th century Venetian palazzo) and other classic European artists. She also extended her acquisitions to more contemporary Europeans such as Manet and Degas and was a personal friend of the great American painter John Singer Sargent, who painted two portraits of her that appear in the museum (there are another eight portraits of her throughout the museum).

One of Sargent's best paintings, "El Jaleo," was what my friends had made the trip to see. Roughly seven by nine feet, it's a brilliantly passionate scene of a Spanish dance, a flurry of dancers and musicians set in shades of light and dark that match the intermittent illumination of the Gardner's halls. Though I've no great knowledge of art, I'm aware that this painting is considered one of the museum's best. But what I really wanted to see was hanging upstairs, in the Dutch Room Gallery. It's nothing to compete with "El Jaleo," of course. In fact, it's nothing but a few empty frames.


On March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers broke into the Gardner Museum, trussed up the guards, and committed one of America's greatest art heists. From the second-floor Dutch Room, they took a Vermeer, a Chinese bronze statue (another case of Ms. Gardner's instincts for interior design preceding the normal classification of a "Dutch Room"), a Flinck once believed to be a Rembrandt, and three honest-to-God Rembrandts, including a postage stamp-sized self-portrait and the artist's only known seascape, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee." From the second-floor Short Gallery, under the very eyes of the vibrant portrait "Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice," by Anders Zorn, the pair took three drawings on paper by Degas. From other rooms, they took a Manet oil and a finial in the form of an eagle from a Napoleonic flag, and then left the building. Between 1:24 a.m. and 2:45 a.m., they had made off with 13 artworks valued at up to 300 million dollars at the time of the theft.

In the last 16 years, very little has come to light in the case, but rumors run rampant. Currently the predominant theory, detailed in last year's documentary Stolen about the search for the missing Vermeer, contends that Whitey Bulger, Boston mobster and one of the FBI's Most Wanted, took the artworks with him when he went into hiding in Ireland.

A five million dollar reward is still on the table, but as the years pass it seems increasingly unlikely that anyone will come forward or that the artworks will be returned. The Gardner Museum was contacted by someone claiming to have information in 1994, and in 1997 a Boston Herald reporter claimed he was blindfolded and driven to a warehouse to see Rembrandt's "Sea of Galilee," but nothing came of either lead except more speculation. The single surveillance tape on the premises was of course taken by the thieves, but even the possibility of prosecution has disappeared:  the six-year statute of limitations in effect at the time has long since lapsed.

In most cases, the museum might prefer to forget about the missing works, or at least try to distract their visitors from such a gap in their collection. But Ms. Gardner's eccentricities aren't just apparent in her art; they are also in her will. According to her final wishes, not a single piece of the collection may be moved or removed from where she originally placed it. So the remaining frames, from which bits of canvas had been left hanging when the paintings were cut out, remain where they were originally placed by Ms. Gardner. A small plaque hangs in place of the Degas sketches.

The empty frames might seem a bitter reminder for the museum, but the heist has had a few positive results. While high premiums and Gardner tradition had prevented the collection from being insured — Ms. Gardner preferred to rely on two statues in the museum entry portal of St. George and St. Florian, saints believed to protect against fire and theft — the remaining artworks are now finally insured and the security system has been upgraded. And as CNN reported in 2002, "the Gardner case spurred passage of the Theft of Major Artwork statute, making it a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison for stealing any museum art more than a century old or worth at least $100,000."


In comparison to what other museums have done in the wake of significant thefts, the Gardner seems if nothing else a beacon of honesty. "In general museums do not want to commemorate thefts at all," Ton Cremers, of the Museum Security Network, told me by email. "The ISG in Boston really is an exception. I admire their attitude a lot. The general attitude in museums is to evade every negative publicity or attention to negative facts."

In particular, the Munch museum in Oslo has been less than transparent following the theft of Edvard Munch's world-famous "The Scream" and also the "Madonna" in August of 2004. It was not the first time that a version of "The Scream" (Munch created several) had been stolen. A 1994 incident, involving a ladder placed against a window and a note from the thieves thanking the museum for its lax security, was far more embarrassing. But that version of "The Scream" was returned after a successful sting operation. In the current case, six men are currently awaiting trial in Norway on charges related to the robbery. Yet none of the accused has offered any information leading to the recovery of the artworks, and some experts believe "The Scream" and "Madonna" have already been destroyed in an effort to avoid detection. If that has happened, it would seem a depressingly pyrrhic victory on the part of criminals.

Though the Munch Museum closed for ten months while it completed a six million dollar security overhaul, they have kept mum on the missing work. "If you enter that museum now it is like entering an airport," Cremers wrote. "There is a lot of security." But, "The missing paintings are not indicated in any way." The Munch Museum's website, though there is now a page specifically focused on the history of "The Scream" and "Madonna", does not mention that the two works are no longer on view. While the Gardner museum website offers specific contact information for anyone with details on the theft, the Munch Museum doesn't seem to make that information available.

Cremers's call for museums to claim responsibility seems sound, but those gaps on the Gardner's walls have an appeal that small paintings of pasty-faced Brits by Holbein the Younger just don't possess. We use words like "heist" only when it comes to art thefts and Westerns, and the public fascination with stolen art far surpasses most people's interest in actually going to a museum. Perhaps it is a question of passion, and of our ability to understand contemporary thieves' desire for the rare and valuable much more easily than we can understand passion for long-dead Italians' dogged reiterations of a plump Madonna. However much I like to visit galleries, I get a much bigger thrill surfing through the pages of the FBI's Art Theft Program, where the Gardner theft is still number two on the list of Top Ten Art Crimes, with Munch stuck below in third place.

For a while I linger over the empty frames and allow myself some Ocean's Eleven-type fantasies (Matt Damon would make a perfect Whitey Bulger if he went back to his Good Will Hunting accent). When I have my fill, I join up with my friends in front of "El Jaleo." It's an impressive paint, I'm told, and they go on to tell me about all the little technical details that made Sargent great. I'm nodding and staring, a bit blankly, until I catch sight of something on the painting:  a faint human handprint on the wall above "El Jaleo"'s  Spanish musicians. Whose print is it? Was it left by one of thieves? It seems as likely as anything else in this museum, and suddenly I'm thinking This could be the clue that cracks the whole case wide open … .

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Articles in this Issue

A Daughter's Search for Her Phantom Father, by Sharon Estill Taylor, Ph.D.
Finding East, by J.D. Jahangir
A House of Cards, by Sandy Balfour
Biddy's Ruin, by Terry Glavin
The Verbs of Boro, by Mark Abley
Lexicography, by Grant Barrett
Tourism, by Benjamin Hart
Art History, by Peter Joseph
Oral Hygiene, by Megan Milks
Advertising, by Ian Phillips


Peter Joseph is an editor for LOST.

Where loss is found.

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