Why the Gardner Museum Paintings May Never Be Found


This week, the FBI searched the home of veteran Boston mobster Robert Gentile for the third time for clues to the whereabouts of 13 works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum more 25 years old. The circumstances of the initial loss are so well known that they need not be repeated, but the latest news has sparked a flurry of new publicity surrounding the ongoing investigation.

Hopes of prosecuting the thieves who broke into the museum are long gone, although the FBI believe they have identified the perpetrators. It is clear, however, that the FBI, local police, museum staff and the general public have not yet given up hope of recovering the 11 photos, the Chinese vase and the Napoleonic finial that were taken.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has made it clear that it will consider offering immunity from criminal prosecution if the paintings are returned, and for some time now a $5 million reward has been available for information to recover the paintings. stolen items. Despite this incentive, the works, valued according to the FBI at around 500 million dollars, are still missing.

Public and media speculation surrounding the investigation into Mr. Gentile’s former home, which included the excavation of his lawn, reflects this hope that the photos can still be found. But it’s time to think about the possibility that this may never happen – and perhaps to start questioning the resources that are being devoted to research.

The Storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee (1633), the only known seascape by Rembrandt

What happened in the case of these images demonstrates perfectly why, for thieves or those who hold them today, such works have no value. They’re just too well-known, too recognizable to sell – and their mere possession will have become a millstone around someone’s neck. Who might go to an auction house or dealer with Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee (1633) without hoping to feel the full force of the law in a few minutes? Indeed, who could even allow another person to see the painting, while revealing its location could result in a $5 million reward for the viewer and a prison sentence for the holder – the length of which would no doubt reflect the extent of searching for the works?

Unfortunately, these objects are probably too well known to survive. Whatever value the original thieves thought they saw in it has been burned away by the heat of publicity; and instead, what’s left is the kind of accountability that can cause FBI agents to search a house not once but three times, decades after the photos go missing. Any criminal sane enough not to offer these works for sale in hopes of a quick gain should also know that the stolen goods are better off. Unless they have become a kind of poisonous boilerplate game during which, miraculously, no one has been tempted by the reward, the works will have been liquidated a long time ago.

The Concert (1658-1660), one of some 36 known works by Vermeer worldwide

The concert (1658-1660), one of approximately 36 known works by Vermeer worldwide

A useful comparison might be the works of Monet, Picasso and Freud which were stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 2012 by a Romanian gang and then burned in an oven. A gang member’s mother was trying to destroy evidence as police closed in. Another example is the destruction of Stéphane Breitwieser’s stolen artwork from museums across Europe: again his mother destroyed hundreds of items after the police arrested him. Some went down the drain, others were cut up and thrown in the garbage. In both cases, it was too dangerous to keep the stolen property.

It is important to note that most stolen artwork is not as recognizable as artwork taken on March 18, 1990 and is therefore more likely to return to the market and be located. The majority of stolen artwork eventually reappears. Another positive note is that the thefts of such well-known paintings as those taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum seem to be decreasing. Criminals may realize that there is no money to be made from stealing a photo that even they can recognize, either from a sale or a ransom. Sadly, that won’t change the past, and unless the FBI knows a lot more than they’re letting on, we have to assume these images won’t come home.


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