Museum Robbed of Millions in Masterpieces
Thieves disguised as policemen talked their way into a leading art museum early Sunday and stole 11 paintings, including major works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Vermeer, FBI and museum officials said.
The value of the missing works, which also included an ancient Chinese beaker, was “in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Karen Haas, acting curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
But the paintings’ value cannot be accurately determined because they have not been on the market for nearly a century, she said. In any case, art experts said, such well-known works could not be sold on the open market.
“It is the biggest old master theft in this country, by far,” said Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, which tracks stolen artworks.
“The Gardner Museum is a treasure house. Everything in it is exceedingly valuable and first rate and superb.”
Paul Cavanagh, an FBI special agent in Boston, called the theft “a professional job. . . . It was not discovered until when the cleaning people showed up to do their rounds around 8 (Sunday) morning.”
Around 1 a.m. Sunday, the thieves apparently convinced museum guards they were police officers and tied them with tape before making their way to the museum’s Dutch room, Cavanagh said. The guards were not hurt, he said.
“This is one of those thefts where people actually spent some time researching and took specific things,” Cavanagh said, adding that the investigation would not be limited to the United States.
William Robinson, curator of drawings for Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, called the stolen objects “major works.”
“It’s not overstating the case to say that these are priceless works,” Robinson said. “A loss of any of these works is significant.”
Peter Sutton, curator of European paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, said it was possible the works had been stolen on commission for the private collection of a wealthy art collector.
“You hear legends of deranged collectors,” Sutton said. “But mostly I think it’s the stuff of spy novels.”
Lowenthal agreed that the paintings would be nearly impossible to dispose of.
“People make pilgrimages to see these paintings. Scholars and art lovers know where they are, where they belong.
“These things do not belong on the market and cannot be sold for a decent price,” she said. “Possibly the thieves are going to wake up tomorrow morning and have a completely different problem from the one they thought they had.”
Corey Cronin, a museum spokesman, said the works were part of the museum’s permanent collection dating from the last century. Cronin said the museum had a “state of the art” security system and employed two security guards.
He said no apparent damage was done to the museum, a former mansion built at the turn of the century in the style of a 15th-Century Venetian palace.
The works taken were:
--"The Concert” by Jan Vermeer.
--"A Lady and a Gentleman in Black,” “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and a self-portrait by Rembrandt.
--"Landscape with an Obelisk,” by Govaert Flinck, another 17th-Century Dutchman.
--"La Sortie du Pesage,” “Cortege aux Environs de Florence,” “Three Mounted Jockeys,” “Program for an Artistic Soiree” and another, less complete work by the same name, by Edgar Degas.
--"Chez Tortoni,” by Edouard Manet.
--a Chinese bronze beaker dating from the Shang Dynasty, 1200-1100 BC.
Robinson said the Rembrandt self-portrait and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” the artist’s only seascape, were especially important. The theft of the painting by Vermeer was also a major loss, he said, because only about 35 of his works are known to exist.
The museum is a four-story stone building near the Museum of Fine Arts.
The museum collection contains 290 paintings, 280 pieces of sculpture as well as various religious objects, period furniture, textiles, ceramics and documents and books by famous writers and political figures.