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Has the Greatest Art Theft Ever Finally Been Solved?

On the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as Boston police walked into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and 81 minutes later walked out with an estimated $500 million USD worth of fine art, including Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert (shown above; detail). Ever since that infamous day, empty frames occupy the missing artwork’s former locations on the walls of the Gardner Museum. Those frames might be filled once again, however, if a new announcement by the F.B.I. that they’re close to cracking the case is true. Timed on the 23rd anniversary of the crime, the F.B.I.’s claim raises hopes that the greatest art theft and one of the most followed and well-documented art crime investigations might finally be solved.

The piece in The New York Times by Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg manages to capture much of the frustrating nature of the F.B.I. announcement itself. The authorities claim that they had traced the paintings to Connecticut and suspect they were sold in Philadelphia in the 1990s, but lost the scent at that point. During the press conference, the feds didn’t acknowledge timing the news story for the anniversary, saying only that “significant investigative progress in the search” had been made and that the “final chapter” of the hunt was in the works. United States attorney Carmen Ortiz squashed that note of optimism with a diplomatic “optimis[m] that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place.” So, are they close or aren’t they? Only the investigators (and maybe the crooks) know for sure.

Or perhaps this is all a ruse, a shaking of the art crime tree to see what falls out? As much as we want to imagine a supervillain like Dr. No secretly enjoying in his evil lair his ill-gotten Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Goya (to the astonishment of James Bond in the film Dr. No), the reality is much more mundane. The only time stolen art usually surfaces is during possible transactions, which are as much a fiction as a Bond film considering how difficult it is to move high priced art. Vincenzo Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa hidden under his bed for 2 years and could have kept it there for many more if he hadn’t tried to sell the painting to a gallery in Italy, which he felt was the “real” home for da Vinci’s masterpiece and not France’s Louvre. What bed or warehouse now hides the Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other missing works, assuming that they even exist anymore at all?

I’ll keep hope alive that the Gardner Museum robbery will be solved someday, if for no other reason than the memory of Harold Smith, the unlikely star of Stolen, the captivating 2005 documentary about the robbery and the recovery efforts. Watching Smith battle skin cancer while simultaneously battling these thieves made me think of how time was ticking away both for him and hopes of filling those empty frames again.  Whether it’s just a ruse or foreshadowing of bigger news, the F.B.I.’s announcement at the very least brought back into the public consciousness this loss and all the other smaller, less publicized art thefts committed each year. Until then, all the public can do is wait and listen, like the mysterious figures in the missing Vermeer.

[Image: Jan Vermeer. The Concert (detail), 1665-1666.]

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