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.

Josh Reynolds/AP
An empty frame which used to contain the painting 'The Concert' by Vermeer hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Ordinarily, there are just two ways for members of the public to enter the most remarkable small art museum in America for free: Buy a membership or be named Isabella like its founder. (And yes, they require an ID to prove the latter. Don't ask me how I know this.)

But 23 years ago this week, two visitors made their way into the museum without a ticket, a pass or the proper first name. Over 81 minutes, a pair of men ripped paintings out of frames and tore a gaping hole into Boston's heart.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has recovered from the shock of the massive theft that robbed it of an estimated $500 million worth of artwork, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. As I discovered during a visit on St. Patrick's Day this week, the museum in an Italian-style villa remains an intimate wonderland of paintings, tapestries, drawings and more – antique chairs, ancient knickknacks, a medieval knight's tomb and even a deliciously naughty Greek sarcophagus.

But the stolen artwork remains missing, the thieves remain uncaught, the $5 millon reward remains unpaid, and empty frames remain on walls at the museum. The FBI announced this week that it thinks it knows who did it, but it's not naming names.

As we noted earlier this week, many books have been written about the case or inspired by it, even novels. The best may be 2009's "The Gardner Heist" by journalist Ulrich Boser.

I reached Boser this week and asked him to describe the heartache spawned by the theft, outline his theory about what happened and predict whether we'll ever see these fantastic works of art again.
 Q: As you write, some fans of the museum can still remember where they were when they heard about the heist. Why does this theft has such resonance on an emotional level?
 A: It has a lot to do with the intimacy of the museum, where you really feel Isabella Gardner's presence.

The museum never changes. [This was required in the will of Gardner, a rich and fabulously eccentric art lover.] People have often told me of the experience they've had with the museum: They went as a child, and then they brought their own kids there and their grandkids. It feels like a little bit of amber. Then you go back to something you remember as a child and see a painting as beautiful as the Vermeer is ripped out, the frame hanging there empty.
 Q: Do people see the theft as a violation?

A: They do. A number of people seem to see it as a very personal violation, that it affected them.

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.

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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