Three Reads for the Gardner Heist

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Inside the Gardner: Two empty frames.

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Gardner Heist, in which two thieves, dressed as Boston Policemen, simply rang the doorbell at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and proceeded to steal thirteen artworks, including Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

When the two perpetrators left the museum in the early hours of March 18, 1990, with the thirteen works—objects that Gardner had meticulously selected from Europe’s finest galleries a hundred years before, with the help of her advisor, American critic Bernard Berenson—they disappeared. The thieves have never been caught, the paintings never recovered. There’s been so no shortage of theories or leads over the last two decades; last year a New England mobster claimed to have information on the whereabouts of the works. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that the guard who allowed the thieves entry into the museum was never cleared by authorities, and is writing a book on his experience the night of the crime and after.

I’m not sure if RIchard Abath has a publisher or pubdate quite yet, but in the meantime, three reads to understand the facts and significance of the Gardner Heist:

1. The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser, HarperCollins, 2009.

Boser’s comprehensive account of the crime and the various complicated theories who orchestrated and executed the crime, their motives and where those artworks are now, is obsessive. “This is a work of fact,” he writes in the author’s note, though his study of the crime and ongoing investigation reads like mystery. While The Gardner Heist is carefully researched and noted, Boser at times irritatingly devolves into conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, its largely an absorbing, complete look at the crime and the cultural significance of art theft.

2. The Art of the Heist, by Myles J. Connor, Jr., HarperCollins, 2009.

Connor’s memoir, co-authored by crime writer Jenny Siler, chronicles his career as a bank robber and museum pilferer from the 1960s onwards. Though Connor was serving time in an FBI prison on March 18, 1990, authorities believed he might have orchestrated the Gardner theft from his mid-west jailcell. “Almost every aspect of the Gardner heist carried Connor’s fingerprints,” writes Siler in her prologue. And while Connor’s book doesn’t offer new intelligence into the crime or where the artworks are now, The Art of the Heist does give valuable, first-person insight into why artworks are valuable to criminals, and how the Gardner paintings might be used by the theives. Stolen paintings like The Concert can’t be sold on the art market, but Connor’s account suggests they have value in the crime world that’s predicated on their cultural worth.

3. Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker, Yale University Press, 2009.

Contemporary Cultures of Display doesn’t directly talk about the Gardner heist, but the essays it includes discuss and explain how the meaning of a painting changes as it leaves the privacy of the studio and enters the public sphere for the market or the museum. “The context of display is an important issue for art history because it colours our perception and informs our understanding of works of art,” writes Barker. The studies in Contemporary Cultures of Display look at how cultural meaning is imbued in an artwork, and how we, as cultural participants, understand the value of artworks within a museum setting. One of the most fascinating essays is Barker’s “Heritage and the Country House,” in which she describes and analyzes how homes of powerful people of our past (like Gardner) are preserved with their art collections and presented to the public for cultural consumption (like the Gardner Museum is). There’s power in art, and that power is sometimes contingent on how it’s presented. How did the Gardner thieves recognize and understand the power that the stolen paintings signified, and how did they capitalize on that power? Contemporary Culture of Display offers critical insight into artworks as commodity.

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Inside the Gardner.

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Inside the Gardner.