The 25th Anniversary of the Gardner Heist

The empty frame which once held "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum
The empty frame which once held Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

25 years ago tonight, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suffered a devastating loss to its collection. 13 works of art led to a FBI investigation, and a new Federal Criminal provision. But the works themselves are still lost. Today brings a slew of examinations of the theft and the subsequent investigation.

Stephen Kurkjian, an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe, and author of a new work on the theft, has an extended portion of the book at the Boston Globe. He recounts many details of the efforts in 2013 that many speculated would lead to a break in the case: Continue reading “The 25th Anniversary of the Gardner Heist”

O’Donnell on the ‘sightings’ of Gardner thefts

Attorney Nicholas O’Donnell rightly skewers the FBI’s recent media blitz on the so-called “confirmed sightings” of works stolen from the Gardner Museum:

If my skepticism sounds familiar, it is because there was a similar episode last year, when the FBI claimed “with a  high degree of confidence” that it knew who had stolen the paintings.  That story, as has often been the case, was released around the anniversary of the theft (though without mentioned that coincidence).  Richard DesLauriers, the Special Agent in Charge in Boston, said then: “The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft,”

The FBI theory seems to be this: an informant in a Dorchester garage accused Merlino of being involved, and someone else in the same garage knew Gentile, who had some police paraphernalia in his house.  Really?  Put that way, it is pretty clear why the FBI has not arrested anyone or offered more information: it cannot prove any of this.

The FBI said a year ago that it knew who was responsible, but clearly does not want to accuse Gentile directly.  Instead, it is essentially asking the public to connect the fact that Gentile has some relation to Philadelphia, to the uncorroborated offers for sale in an “I’m just saying” sort of way.

The Gardner heist is a civic tragedy in here in Boston.  It struck at one of our most treasured institutions.  I can still picture the full-page headline in the Boston Globe the day that it happened (the Art Law Report was just a gleam in the eye of a local high school student then).  But these recycled stories are not advancing the ball.  If the FBI thinks it has a case against a responsible person, it should move on that information.  If it is simply going to make insinuations, it should stop.

Nicholas O’Donnell, FBI Claims to Have “Confirmed Sightings” of Stolen Gardner Artwork, But Offers Only Stale Information and Conjecture, Art Law Reort (May 22, 2014),

Vermeer's "The Concert"
Vermeer’s “The Concert”


Are Iraq’s Antiquities in a Revolving Door?

A 4,400 year old statue of King Entemena looted and now returned

In a ceremony today 542 works of art and objects were returned from the United States to Iraq.  Among the items returned were:

[A] 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum . . . an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990’s and seized before being auctioned at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets that had been smuggled out of Iraq before the invasion . . .  There was also a more recent relic: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Mr. Hussein, taken by an American solider as booty and displayed at Fort Lewis, in Washington.

Yet a senior Iraqi official admitted that 632 other pieces returned by U.S. forces have apparently gone missing.  They were supposed to have been shipped to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office via a flight authorized by Gen. Petraeus, Steven Lee Myers reports for the NYT that antiquities returned to Iraq are in a “revolving door”. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaidaie told reporters ““We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them”.  Perhaps the attention paid to these newly returned artifact will help to recover the previous shipment.  

  1. Steven Lee Myers, Iraq’s Looted Treasures in a Revolving Door, The New York Times, September 7, 2010, (last visited Sep 7, 2010).
  2. The Associated Press: Hundreds of looted artifacts returned to Iraq, (last visited Sep 7, 2010).
  3. Jane Arraf, 542 antiquities looted in Iraq war return home. Where are the rest?, Christian Science Monitor, , (last visited Sep 7, 2010).

Video from the NYT after the jump.

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100 Objects Returned to Panama

Yesterday the FBI announced the return of 100 antiquities to Panama, including this very small piece of jewelry.  The objects were seized during an investigation “conducted  by the FBI’s Portland Division”:

The FBI’s investigation revealed that the widow of an amateur archeologist was storing the items in and around Klamath Falls, Oregon. The investigation showed that the individual acquired many of the items while working as a teacher on a U.S. military base in Panama during the 1980s. It was also during this time that he married his wife, then a Panamanian citizen. The two brought many of the items with them when they moved back to the U.S. in the late 1980s. Over the years, the couple sold some of the items at various markets and on the Internet. The Klamath Falls man died of natural causes in October 2004.No charges are expected.

The 1972 Panama Constitution and a 1982 Panamanian law make it illegal for any person to own antiquities from that country. Only the government of Panama may own such items, and give permission for archeological digs and/or transport of antiquities out of the country.

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French Man Pleads Guilty to Art Theft Conspiracy

Last week the US Department of Justice issued a press release announcing a Frenchman named Bernard Jean Ternus pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell four works of art stolen last August from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France.

According to the release, Ternus and another man attempted to sell two of the works to undercover agents in Barcelona, Spain for three million euros. They sold two works, and attempted to keep the other two as leverage in case they got arrested. This plan revealed its flaws in June though when Ternus’ co-conspirators were arrested in Southern France when they attempted to exchange the final two works.

Ternus was arrested by FBI and ICE agents in Florida, and its likely a condition of his plea agreement was to give testimony about the thefts themselves, which should aid French authorities in their prosecution of the co-conspirators in Europe.

The arrests are a very good thing, but it will be interesting to see what Ternus’ and his conspirators prison sentances will be, as art theft is typically not given long prison terms. Though the armed nature of the robbery may lead to harsher penalties for the actual thieves in Europe.

This is nonetheless a very good example of cooperation of Federal Agents and prosecutors, and their French and Spanish counterparts. Its a job very well done, and an indication why theft of these kind of high-profile works is very silly. I’ve included images of the recovered works from the press release below:

Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897. Oil on canvas. 65 x 100 cm (25 9/16 x 39 3/8 in.).
Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611
© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
Allegory of Water, ca. 1611
©Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Water, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Alfred Sisley (French and British, 1839-1899). The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890. Oil on canvas. 76 x 96 cm (29 15/16 x 37 13/16 in.). (20 7/8 x 3)
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Stewart Gardner Resolution?

Is a resolution eminent in the largest art theft in history? Perhaps, with word this morning that a Boston grand jury is scheduled to hear evidence this week into the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, estimated at between $300-500 million. One of the stolen works is the Concert by Vermeer.

Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe has the story, in which he was given details of a subpoena from a former museum employee who worked there at the time.

The former worker said two FBI agents questioned him about his recollection of the theft several days ago and handed him a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in Boston tomorrow.

The agents told him they were gathering facts on the case and were hoping that the grand jury would “shake things up” in the long-stalled investigation, said the former worker, who asked not to be identified.

The agents did say that they were pursuing the possibility that the theft may have been carried out by three individuals – and not two as has long been publicly believed, the former employee said.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan’s office declined to comment on the grand jury, stating that the office never confirms or denies the existence of such a session.

A spokeswoman for the Gardner Museum also declined comment.

The former museum employee read portions of the subpoena to the Globe and said it was signed by Brian T. Kelly, a veteran prosecutor in the US attorney’s office. Kelly has helped spearhead the federal investigation into and the crackdown of James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal enterprise.

It is often said that a grand jury is both a sword and a shield. It protects the rights of criminal defendants, but also allows prosecutors to use their subpoena power to compel testimony. Whether a resolution will emerge remains to be seen, but right now there are more questions than answers, most notably: where are the paintings?

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"Loot" Reviewed

This weekend I’ve had a chance to finally finish Loot: Inside the World of Stolen Art, by Thomas McShane with Dary Matera. McShane worked as an undercover agent for the FBI for 36 years, and recovered a number of works of art. In order to win the confidence of the handlers of the stolen works, McShane had to adopt aliases, most notably Thomas Bishop, the elegantly dressed art buyer.

The book starts strong, revealing the recovery of Rembrandt’s the Rabbi. The theft from the Bonnat Museum was “[a]s is so often the case with art thefts…a crime of opportunity rather than precision planning. On 1 March 1971, a young French art student named Robert LeBec visited the Bonnat Museum as he often did to study the brushtrokes of the ancient masters.” The travels of the work reveal a great deal about art theft. The work was very easy to steal, but the handlers were unable to unload it, and it seemed to cause them nothing but trouble. I enjoyed the description of smaller art museums as “reminiscent of the ‘easy jug’ banks American bandit John Dillinger robbed with impunity 40 years earlier. Security was lax or non-existent. Alarm systems, if present, were rudimentary and easily overcome. The atmosphere was friendly and hands-on.”

Most of the book accounts how McShane transformed himself into his art buying alter-ego. He would invariably set up a “buy”, then authenticate the work, checking the brush strokes, paint composition, nails on the canvas; and then would signal the other agents listening in to make the bust. Interestingly McShane was always arrested with the thieves, to preserve his cover.

The stories are interesting, and fun to read. The book was great summer reading, but unfortunately it never seems to go below the surface. Part of that may be that McShane is unable or unwilling to reveal what goes on behind the scenes. For example, he would always get “tipped” that someone was looking to unload a Picasso or major work. It would be interesting to know how difficult it really is to fence stolen artwork. McShane gives a baseline. A thief can usually expect to get 10% of a stolen painting’s value. But how often to museums cave in and pay a ransom. What about insurance companies? Is it more important to recover the work or catch the thief?

One of the most interesting chapters involved Picasso’s still-missing Man with the Purple Hat. It was a 6 foot bright-purple canvas which was stolen on the way from Houston’s Jasper Museum to Manhattan. The work was sealed in a truck in Houston, but when it arrived in New York the painting was missing. The authors argue this is a likely “Dr. No” theft, where someone commissions a theft: “He, and she, exist all right. From Riyadh to Beverly Hills, they’re out there gazing up at their special prizes each and every day, proving once again that ‘stolen apples taste the sweetest.’ They’re just extremely difficult to catch.” There is no hard evidence that these evil geniuses are out there, but McShane should command some deference for his long service and many recoveries.

In the book’s second half, some momentum is lost, as the prose gets a bit muddled; and for some reason the author’s start describing each new character based on their likeness to Hollywood and tv Celebrities like Kojak and the like. Some of this is regained at the end with McShane’s take on the largest unsolved art theft: the theft of 13 works from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. I enjoyed the speculation on that theft a great deal. But shockingly, if the thieves have sold the works on, the statute of limitations for the theft has expired, so the actual thieves may be able to collect on part of the $5 million reward. One wonders how often that goes on, but seldom is a full and open account given.

It’s a fun read, but ultimately it left me wanting more substance. In the epilogue a call is made for increased security and criminal penalties. But how? That does not seem to provide a complete picture, as museums are often strapped for funds, and they have to walk a balance between access to the public and security. No discussion of provenance was given, or how effective stolen art databases have become. I was also disappointed more was not said about current efforts at the FBI, including the Art Crime Team which seems to have had some notable successes. The authors seem to think this is still not enough, claiming that only one agent works full time on the problem. I had believed it was closer to half a dozen, but perhaps many of these agents have other duties. In any event it is a fun read, has some exciting stories to tell, but ultimately does not help us arrive at a better way of actually thwarting art theft.

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New Addition to Top 10 Art Crimes

The FBI Art Crime Team announced on Monday that it was adding the theft of Frans Van Mieris A Cavalier (Self Portrait) which was stolen from an Australian Gallery back in June. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

The Top 10 Art Crimes list was initiated in 2005, and since then 10 of the various examples have been recovered:

  • A Rembrandt self-portrait and Renoir’s Young Parisian from Sweden’s National Museum theft;
  • Goya’s Children with a Cart from the Toledo Art Museum theft;
  • Munch’s The Scream and The Madonna from the Munch Museum theft in Oslo;
  • and the Cellini Salt Cellar from the Kunsthistorisches Museum theft in Vienna.
  • Also recovered was the Statue of Entemena from the Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts entry.

That’s an impressive start, and indicates there is a growing need for continued publication of high-profile thefts like these.

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FBI Recovers Buck’s Manuscript

The Philadelphia office of the FBI has announced it has recovered a 400-page manuscript stolen around 1966 from the author’s farm. The Good Earth manuscript by Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer prize, and was the driving force behind the author’s Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s not clear whether the FBI’s Art Crime Team was involved in this recovery, as they are based in Philadelphia, or whether it was agents from the Philadelphia office who made the recovery. There is no precise value for the manuscript, but it is surely priceless for literary scholars.

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Theft of a Small Masterpiece in Sydney

Last week a work by Dutch master Frans van Mieris, A Cavalier (Self Portrait), was taken from a busy gallery last Sunday. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

Many of the Australian news outlets refer to an interview on Australian ABC radio with Robert Goldman, an agent with the FBI Art Crime Team. Goldman runs through the usual speculation which occurs when a valuable painting has been stolen, as the market for a high-profile work is negligible. As he said, “Our experience, the FBI experience, is that approximately 80 per cent of museum theft cases of art are inside jobs – either people who work there – people whom we say ‘have the keys to the kingdom’.”

Other theories are that the thieves were just foolish, thinking they could have sold it, when in reality they cannot. Also there is the usual speculation that the work could have been stolen on consignment by a Dr. No character because as Goldman says “There are collectors out there that don’t care if the items are stolen.”

The recovery rate for these works is very low. When this kind of work does resurface, it is often a generation later. The irony in this case is this gallery had begun to trumpet its new security in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Islamic Art. The other possibility may be that security is so lax, a gallery visitor may have just admired the work and wanted it on their wall. Though much of the gallery is under video surveillance, it seems the room where this object was displayed was not.

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