Why Are Art Heists So Fascinating?
Twenty-five years after the largest museum theft in American history, the misappropriation of masterpieces holds a unique place in the popular imagination.
Twenty-five years ago, two thieves committed the greatest art heist in American history. Dressed as police officers, the pair entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston at 1:24 a.m. via a side door by ringing the buzzer, persuaded the only security guard sitting at the main desk to step away from it (and from the sole button that could trigger an alarm), and then restrained him and the only other guard on duty before making off with 13 artworks worth an estimated $500 million. None of the stolen art—which included works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas—has ever been recovered. Although the FBI stated two years ago that it had identified who was responsible, no one has ever been apprehended for the crime, or even named as an official suspect.
The Gardner Museum heist occupies a unique place in American history thanks to its scale and its status as an unsolved mystery, but in many ways it’s fairly representative of art theft over the past half-century. Investigators don't think the thieves were art experts or sophisticates in the manner of a Thomas Crown or a Danny Ocean—or even master thieves like the Pink Panther gang. The stolen works were presumably difficult to offload thanks to their notoriety. And the loss of the art continues to have profound resonance for both the museum and the city of Boston, given the popular fascination with art theft, the cultural value of art, and the sense that great works belong to everyone. A quarter of a century later, the misappropriation of masterpieces continues to have a distinctive hold on the public imagination, even as it becomes a type of criminal activity that’s both misunderstood and increasingly hard to pull off.
For as long as humans have been making art and ascribing value to it, art has been understood as a kind of currency of power and prestige, from the looting of tombs in ancient Egypt several thousand years ago to the artifacts destroyed by ISIS in the Assyrian city of Nimrud and the Mosul Museum. Secretary of State John Kerry has described the latter group’s goal as an effort “to eviscerate a culture and rewrite history in its own brutal image”—similar to the efforts the Nazis made to devalue modern and expressionist art and rebrand it as “degenerate,” confiscating countless works from museums and destroying thousands. The regime also looted an extraordinary amount of art and precious objects from Europe during World War II, with art holding a particular significance for Adolf Hitler, a frustrated painter who’d been rejected twice by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. “His love of art led directly into the heart of evil,” the historian Birgit Schwarz told Der Spiegel in 2009. Without a strong conception of himself as a brilliant talent, Schwarz argues, Hitler “would never have been able to see himself as a genius. That’s why he constantly had to reaffirm his love for art.”
While historically the greatest art thieves have been governments and victorious parties in violent conflicts, the concept of the gentleman art thief is enshrined in popular culture. Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown, a handsome millionaire who robs banks for sport, was reinvented in 1999 as a handsome millionaire who lifts Monets from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just because he can. The specifics of Crown’s criminal activity were reportedly changed because audiences in the 90s would be less inclined to sympathize with a bank robber, whereas art theft implies a degree of sophistication and aestheticism in its perpetrators that makes it more palatable. 1999 also saw the release of Entrapment, a film starring Sean Connery as a master thief who lifts Rembrandts and Chinese masks to sell to shady buyers. That’s where truth and fiction diverge: In reality, it’s enormously difficult to find homes for purloined Old Masters and Impressionists. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2012, Robert Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s first art crimes investigation unit, described how even the most practiced criminals struggle when it comes to attracting buyers for stolen works.
The criminals who do these jobs, these heists, are good thieves, but they’re terrible businessmen. That’s what it comes down to. They read in the newspaper about the growing value of paintings and the new records that are set every year by Cezannes and Picassos, and then they think they can get a payday by going out and doing a heist. What they don’t understand is that the value of art is dependent on three things: authenticity, provenance—the history of the art—and legal title … If you don’t have one of those three things, you don’t have value.
Or, as Wittman told City AM last year, “the true art isn’t the stealing, it’s the selling.” A legitimately acquired version of "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (there are four in total) might sell for $120 million, but a stolen one will be almost impossible to unload, given the work’s recognition factor and the publicity such thefts incur (versions of “The Scream” were stolen in 1994 and 2004 and were soon recovered). Although the BBC estimates that gangs in Britain make up to £300 million annually by stealing works of art, it generally pays for criminals to go smaller in their ambitions, since lesser-known items will usually be covered by insurers, and governments only have the resources to investigate the most high-profile cases.
Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of what happens to a masterpiece after it’s purloined. The book captures the shuffling of a priceless artwork between various criminal gangs after the protagonist, Theo, removes it from the Metropolitan Museum of Art after being injured in a terrorist attack. The painting is eventually returned to the museum after Theo’s friend, Boris, strikes a deal with an art recovery team and even receives a reward after revealing the names of the people in possession of it. The journalist Stephen Kurkjian lays out a similar theory regarding the Gardner Museum heist in his new book, Master Thieves, proposing that one of the thieves was Robert Donati, the driver for the mobster Vincent Ferrara. Donati “reportedly told Ferrara that he had pulled off the Gardner robbery to try to gain Ferrara’s release from prison,” Kurkjian writes. But Donati was beaten to death in 1991, 18 months after the heist.
As for the items stolen that day, it’s possible that they’ll never be found. One of the more heartbreaking consequences of art theft—perceived by many to be a victimless crime, which is why sentences tend to be relatively mild—is when works are disposed of by people desperate to cover their tracks.
In 2012, two Romanian men, Radu Dogaru and Eugen Darie, plotted a heist at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The pair were petty criminals with little experience in the art world, but they managed to get away with seven paintings by artists including Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and Monet after using pliers to gain access to a side door. After the robbery, encouraged by the media’s estimation of the value of the missing artworks to be several hundreds of millions of dollars, the two men attempted to cash in on their haul, but found few people willing to pay significant cash for such hot items. When Dogaru was arrested in 2013, his mother told investigators that she’d burned the paintings in her stove after being frightened for her son’s welfare. She later retracted this claim, but Romanian museum experts found traces of primer, pigment, and canvas in the ashes that matched the stolen works.
In 2005, a two-ton bronze sculpture was stolen via truck from the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, England. The reward offered by the institution for the return of the sculpture was £100,000, but police believe it was cut into pieces, melted, and sold to make electrical components, bringing the thieves less than £1,500.
When it comes to art, both the literal and metaphorical value of a work may be vastly different for one person than it is for another, but once destroyed, a masterpiece is gone for everyone. Perhaps the cultural preoccupation with art theft is as much to do with the precariousness of the items being stolen as it is with an inauthentic concept of a good-natured criminal with exquisite taste and an exceptional eye for draftsmanship. Museums can own works of art in a technical sense, but they have a sense of responsibility in terms of maintaining them for the generations of visitors to come. This is what makes the loss of masterpieces like the ones stolen 25 years ago in Boston both endlessly fascinating, and hard to bear.