THE largest art theft in the United States has dropped out of the media spotlight, but every day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here staff members have to face the blank spots on the walls where the treasured works once hung. Over six months after the $200 million heist, which rocked this city and reverberated around the world, the atmosphere at the Gardner Museum is a mixture of hope and nagging worry, fortitude and uncertainty. Despite the museum's offering of a $1 million reward for information leading to the safe recovery of the works, the case remains unsolved.
``It's a very active case,'' asserts director Anne Hawley, interviewed in her office. The FBI ``has told us they still have the same amount of manpower they did at the beginning. They want very much to crack it.''
``We're still evaluating information and still trying to pursue leads,'' says William McMullin, special agent for the FBI in Boston, who declined to comment further.
The sense of loss at the Gardner has been relieved somewhat by the generous outpouring of community support since the theft, says Ms. Hawley.
``The theft just shattered the community's complacency about this institution,'' she says. An ad agency, a research firm, a hotel, and a local carpenter are among the many sources now donating services. ``People woke up to realize that this is a vulnerable institution, that it's not wealthy, that it needs help from the community if it's to be preserved for future generations.''
Attendance at the Gardner increased 35 percent after the theft last March, though Hawley attributes the rise, in part, to the blockbuster Monet show going on concurrently at the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, which drew 537,000 people. Visitor levels at the Gardner have now dropped significantly from that previous high, however, and Hawley is forging ahead with ambitious plans to increase membership from 1,800 to 5,000.
During the interview, Hawley refused to talk about changes in security procedures since the theft, though the museum, in contrast to a year ago, was literally crawling with blue-uniformed guards. It was later confirmed by a museum spokeswoman that the Gardner has hired a museum security consultant and is considering plans to build a bulletproof ``secure vault'' for use by the guards.
Though Hawley could not emphasize enough the sense of grief the staff was still feeling, ``my mood is certainly back on track,'' she says. Her spirits have been lifted by a new fall lecture series and by several staff members she has brought on board who are eager and upbeat, including music director Scott Nickrenz, who will guide the Gardner's much-heralded tradition of chamber music concerts. Mr. Nickrenz is a cellist and the director of chamber music at the Spoleto Festivals in South Carolina, Italy, and Australia.
Conservation of the 2,000-piece collection, however, is the museum's chief concern, says Hawley, since the collection is permanent and cannot be altered nor added to. Both Hawley and the conservation staff are constantly worrying about the unknown condition the 13 stolen items, which include a rare Vermeer painting, three works by Rembrandt, and three by Degas.
``If they're being left in a damp basement somewhere, they're not going to be in too good of a shape,'' said Barbara Mangum, conservator of objects. Mold growth or warping could occur, as well as damage from direct sunlight or ultraviolet light.
The two Rembrandt oil paintings, ``The Storm on the Sea of Galilee'' and ``The Lady and Gentleman in Black,'' were violently cut out of their frames. The pictures might have been folded or rolled, which could be disastrous if they remain that way for long.
While the creasing or warping of a masterpiece is awful to contemplate, the loss of paint is a conservator's ``worst fear,'' says Mrs. Mangum. After the thieves had sliced through the Rembrandts, minute chips of paint were found on the floor and retrieved with tweezers. If the paintings are returned, the chips can be reapplied. Interestingly, analysis of the chips, conservators say, can yield valuable information about the master's painting techniques - insights not attainable through infrared and X-ray analysis.
The Boston-based Polaroid Corporation, using large-format photography and digital image processing, is making photographic reproductions of the stolen works from the museum's supply of transparencies. Hawley is planning to exhibit the images, which she says are ``amazing'' fool-proof likenesses of the originals. ``We find there is a tremendous amount of visitor interest in looking at these works,'' she says.
The more familiar the public is with the artworks, the greater the chances are of finding them. Hawley says she is encouraged by some recent major recoveries of stolen art. This summer, 25 Old Master drawings and paintings, among other items, were returned in mint condition to New York's Colnaghi Art Gallery, robbed in February 1988. That was the largest art theft in the US before the Gardner incident. And in April, the FBI announced it had recovered four 17th-century Dutch paintings stolen eight years ago from the Detroit Institute of Art.
These events are part of ``a regular ebb and flow'' of thefts and recoveries, says Constance Lowenthal, director of the International Foundation for Art Research, an organization that tracks stolen art. She is not surprised, despite the well-known nature of the Gardner works and the $1 million reward, that nothing has turned up.
``There are some thefts of masterpieces where the works are recovered very quickly,'' she says, ``but often we wait many years. There's no predictable timetable for expecting a recovery. It requires a tremendous amount of patience.''