Museum Heists

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What is it with Boston and art theft? Boston is one of my favourite places in the U.S. But whenever I've visited, I have unfortunately never had the time to visit it's great artworks. It appears there are a few bits missing though.

 

Just months after the 25th dispiriting anniversary of the still-unsolved half-billion-dollar theft of treasures from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston police and FBI agents are investigating the disappearance of two artworks worth more than half a million dollars from the Boston Public Library.

 

Missing from the library's central branch are a 1634 Rembrandt etching and a 1504 Durer engraving, although it's still not clear whether the works were stolen or were simply misplaced. Now I get panicked when I misplace my car keys, but how would you misplace a Rembrandt etching from 1634? Maybe their storeroom is the size of Warehouse 13, but I guess not.

 

The 8-by-11-inch Durer, Adam and Eve, is valued at about $600,000. The 5-by-6-inch Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre, is valued between $20,000 and $30,000. Next up, the biggest art heist in history also happened in Boston, and it took just 81 minutes. That's a good nine minutes less than it takes me to tumble around the house in a morning when I'm trying to make a coffee.

 

At 1.24am on the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers bluffed their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and tied up the security guards with metres of duct tape. Personally I would have used Gorilla Tape, it's bond is like witchcraft, but duct tape apparently worked well at the time.

 

By 2.45am, as the city slept off the effects of the previous night’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations, the pair of thieves were disappearing into the darkness with 13 stolen paintings worth an estimated half a billion dollars.

 

A quarter of a century later, the case is still unsolved and empty frames mark the space where works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Degas once hung. But the FBI has not given up on cracking the notorious art crime case and is focusing its investigation on an unlikely figure: a wheezing, 79-year-old former mobster known as Robert “The Cook” Gentile.

 

The ageing gentleman who has been in and out prison since the 1950s, may be the last person alive who knows something about the missing paintings, maybe. Even if he did not steal them, even if he cannot point to where they are now, the FBI thinks he knows something. And they want him to talk.

Yet when he appeared in a Connecticut courtroom in early April, Gentile was anything but chatty. He sat glowering in a wheelchair, narrowing his eyes at the FBI agents across the room and only occasionally whispering to his lawyer in a loud, raspy voice. His position remained unchanged: he knew nothing about the stolen art. This seems to be a long running dance between Gentile and federal investigators. Personally I think it's probably long gone.

 

If art crimes are big in the U.S. They are just as frequent in the UK although slightly smaller in terms of financial loss. In December 2011, the sculpture entitled Two Forms (Divided Circle) by British artist Barbara Hepworth was stolen from Dulwich Park in London.

 

Thieves actually removed this not insignificantly large piece of work during the night. It was considered to be one of Britain’s most recognisable works, from Dulwich Park where it has stood since 1970. How do you even do something like that without being caught? Fascinating. I mean this piece wasn't something that would necessarily have been dropped in the trunk of the car.

 

A Tate gallery spokesman at the time said: "Barbara Hepworth is one of the major figures of modern sculpture and the theft of her work on open display is a great loss." Southwark Council the local authority who operate the park offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the metal thieves. Experts said at the time that if it is melted down for scrap, it may only fetch just £750.

 

Artist Conrad Shawcross has made his latest giant public sculptures out of cheap metal in the hope that it will deter thieves. His looping creations, Three Perpetual Chords, are now residing in Dulwich Park. Let's hope that this piece has more luck and remains in place longer than the previous piece did.

 

I think if I owned a museum or gallery I would probably do something other than solely having a state of the art (forgive the pun) alarm system. I would certainly want to give the whole building a penetration test. I'm wondering to myself as I type if that's a niche I could fill? Only problem is, I wouldn't have a clue where to even start.

 

How would you protect your most valuable possessions of you owned a gallery or museum?

 

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