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Gardner heist: Journalist Ulrich Boser discusses the history behind the famous theft

Will the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ever reappear? Boser addresses these and other questions about the heist, including the plan the thieves may have had and why Boston takes the theft so personally.

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If you were to imagine a theft at a more impersonal museum, like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I don't think people would speak about it in that way.
 
 Q: Has the theft been romanticized?
 
 A: People have this Hollywood view of art where the art thieves wear black turtlenecks and rappel through the windows. They think there's a "Dr. No" or "Mr. Evil" who commissioned this heist. But there's really no evidence of that.
 
 Q: As you write, the thieves stole the Rembrandts in a potentially damaging way, and they ignored even more valuable paintings while taking interesting but less spectacular knickknacks. What's with their strange shopping – or stealing – list?
 
 A: I think they had a list, but that seems to imply that there is someone out there who commissioned art thefts like this. There's no evidence of that. And if you really wanted to make money as an art thief, you wouldn't steal a Vermeer that's so recognizable.

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I think they thought that they would figure out what to do with these things later, that they'd find this "Dr. No" and make money off of the artworks.
 
 Q: What about the security, which consisted of a couple of young security guards who were easily overpowered by the thieves? Was it lax?
 
 A: I don't think it was so terrible for that time and place.
 
 Q: Does anything tie the stolen artworks together?
 
 A: People have speculated in all sorts of ways, that there might be  someone who really loves horses because some of the paintings feature horses. You can draw these outlandish conclusions, but there doesn't seem to be anything on the face of it that draws them all together.
 
 Q: It just seems odd. A couple career criminals rob the Gardner – you theorize about their identities – and plan to figure out later what to do with their stolen goods? Why wouldn't they take everything that was most expensive and most fabulous?
 
 A: There are lots of mysteries within the Gardner case. One of them is why were they in the museum for so long and stole so little. You could have committed that robbery in 15 minutes. Why'd they spend so much time on it? I don't have a great answer to that.
 
 Q: Why do you think the case is still so fascinating?
 
 Mysteries fascinate because we wonder what happened.

Vermeer himself created mysteries within his paintings, making his work rise above so many other beautiful works of art.

Consider "The Concert." It seems like such a such simple painting. [It was one of the stolen paintings. You can see it here; click to enlarge it.]

But when you look up in the right corner, you see a painting which features a man and two women, and the man is soliciting one of the women for sex. On the left side is this nice landscape.

You feel like this painting is about the beauty of the world. But at the same time, he paints a very rude painting within the painting and presents it as a balance between the two. That's one of the reasons his paintings are so powerful: You wonder what really is going on, what is happening within this that's happening. It is very much an unanswered question like the theft itself.
 
 Q: What do you make of the FBI's belief that it knows who did it?
 
 They said they know the identities of the thieves, and they aren't going to share them. And they believe that the paintings are in the Philadelphia and Connecticut regions and were offered for sale in those areas.

I see no reason to disbelieve the investigators on this case. It's been over 20 years, and they've had a lot of leads to run down. Clearly they see it as a priority right now and are doing a great job of publicizing this case.

That's what will lead to the return of this art. Ultimately, I believe this case rests with the public. Somebody knows where the paintings are today.
 
 Q: Do you think the paintings will be returned?
 
 Yes. When it comes to art theft, hope springs eternal. It often takes years, decades, or centuries for artwork to be returned. I do believe they will come back.
 
 Check out this list for nine more recent Monitor interviews with authors of books about true crime.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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