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.
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.
As a wise Museum Security Director once said, ‘It’s a hotel, why should we expect them to safeguard their art?’ On Saturday this Rembrandt sketch was stolen from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, but has since been recovered near a church in Encino. the small drawing was removed from the exhibit Saturday night when the curator was distracted and the drawing was quickly stolen. This almost seems like a case where the work was poorly secured, and anyone could have walked up and stolen it. But there have bee other more elaborate thefts of Rembrandt’s works. For more on why Rembrandt is such a popular artist to steal, have a look at Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg’s new Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists.
Over the weekend, the Boston Globe picks up a piece by London’s Financial Times, that Eric Ives, head of the FBI’s major theft unit, is considering using billboards to aid its investigation of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. One of the works stolen includes this work, which is Rembrandt’s only seascape. The total value of all of the works has been estimated at $300 million. I’ve written about this theft before, in terms of a new documentary here. The best account of the theft I’ve found is Court TV’s here.
Will Billboard’s work? I’m not sure. They certainly can’t hurt. The idea, I suppose, is for someone to catch a glimpse of these works and after seeing the billboard, alert the authorities. I’m not sure there would be much of a market for these works, as they are so widely known in the art world, that there would certainly be an impossibility of a good faith purchase. The law would not honor the sale because the buyers should know that these works have been stolen.
Fascinating theories abound, involving Boston Mafia and IRA members. Certainly, no one will be able to sell these works on any licit market, and if the thieves are caught, there may be a prosecution under the National Stolen Property Act if the transaction has a federal character (like crossing state lines for example). At this point, nearly 16 years after the theft, there does not seem to be any leads for the FBI Investigation, and a billboard campaign may serve to renew interest in the theft.
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