Rembrandt died a broken man – bankrupt, heartbroken, and alone. Because the graves of paupers don’t merit headstones, today we don’t even know where he is buried.
Also missing is one of his greatest works, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633), stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. In the estimate of most experts, the painting still exists – probably somewhere in the United States or Europe – and may well return to hang at the Gardner again someday.
The reason for such optimism, even after more than 20 years of absence? So many Rembrandts have been stolen so many times over the years, and the vast majority have managed – sooner or later – to make their way back home.
Art security expert Anthony Amore and journalist Tom Mashberg have come together to write Stealing Rembrandts, a concise consideration of several major Rembrandt thefts. Their accounts range from the bloody (a dedicated security guard was shot trying to prevent a Rembrandt theft from the Worcester Art Museum in 1972) to the ludicrous (one painting dubbed the “Takeaway Rembrandt” has been stolen four times, always from the same museum) to the laughable (a French thief used the scaffolding put up by museum workers busy installing a security system to access and steal a Rembrandt).
Taken altogether “Stealing Rembrandts” is a quick and entertaining read. The authors offer some quick background on the fabled Dutch painter and his work, speculating a bit as to why his works are so frequently stolen. (It’s not necessarily their worth – in auction they do not fetch the staggering prices of works by artists like Van Gogh and Cézanne).
They also point out that art theft at this level is an odd crime that almost never pays – literally. Because paintings like those by Rembrandt are so recognizable they are almost impossible to sell.
So why are they stolen? Amore and Mashberg debunk several myths, including the idea of a shadowy international coterie of “Dr. No”-type collectors who keep major art hidden in secluded mansions. Some thieves steal great art to ransom it or use it as leverage, they write, but others steal it simply because they are not sophisticated enough to know that it’s a really bad idea.
Certainly the thieves profiled in this book are largely an unlikely collection of thugs and bumblers. The one exception would be Massachusetts’s wily career art criminal Myles J. Connor, but even he is no Pierce Brosnan.
Although Amore is currently head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, this book is not about the famed Rembrandt still missing from that museum – at least, not ostensibly. For readers familiar with the story behind the loss of “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” however, its ghostly presence will hover over every page of the book.
Will it ever come back? Amore and Mashberg say yes – leaving readers with a reasonable degree of hope that there is a happy chapter yet to be added to the story of Rembrandt and his art.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.