Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Gardner Heist

Prior to living outside of Boston I knew very little about the city and its rich history. Certainly, there were the vague generalities gleaned from junior high American history courses. Most Americans recall phrases like Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. I actually did know a bit about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but my knowledge of the art scene in the city was lacking. I was mostly aware of the MFA’s collection of John Singleton Copley works which I had discussed while teaching an American Art History course.

Even after I was living in Massachusetts for a year or so I was still unfamiliar with another treasured landmark—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I had heard from friends and acquaintances that it had a superb collection and that it had been the victim of an infamous art theft, but I had not made the time to visit. So, my first visit was with a friend from the Church of the Advent. I had heard tales about the museum and its namesake from people who worshipped at that church.

I attended the Church of the Advent for three years. At each mass I was entranced by the extensive neo-gothic stone reredos that graces the back wall of the chancel. I was told that Mrs. Gardner had actually gifted that item to the church. She had attended there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A rather peculiar individual, Gardner is said to have scrubbed the steps of the chancel by hand—on her knees on Good Friday—as a form of personal penance. Her will stipulated that a requiem mass be said for her there each year around the middle of April. It was possibly these stories of a famous former parishioner that led me to my first visit to the museum.

That visit also led me to eventually pick up the 2009 book—The Gardner Heist—that examines the multifaceted art theft. This remains the most infamous art heist on record and Ulrich Boser provides an enthralling account of the tangled web—or rather, endless cocoon—that surrounds the mystery.

There is something in this book to engage nearly any reader. A reader need not know anything about Mrs. Gardner, her museum, or art in general. Boser initially approached his writing somewhat distant from all these. The reader becomes enveloped in the tale just as the writer became subsumed by the mystery. Boser had never intended to be so personally invested in the theft, yet he was compelled.

The tale begins like a scene from a movie. Using the details given by witnesses, and from the author’s countless interviews over several years, he paints a vivid image of the night of the museum robbery. The reader is already invested in the story by this point. The author then proceeds to unravel the tale, from every imaginable vantage point.

Boser, first, details how he was infected with an unrelenting fever that kept him chasing every lead in the case. The author initially met Harold Smith, a renowned art robbery detective, in early 2005. His goal was to research the story of the Gardner heist for a writing project. Smith has solved several major thefts in the past. However, the Gardner theft had remained unsolved for a decade and a half by that point. It was no small job as the thieves had taken a Vermeer, a Manet and two Rembrandt paintings. It was always just out of Smith’s reach. Within a year the detective was dead and the mystery was still not solved.

After all those years, chasing down all those leads, Boser decided to continue tracking down the art himself. Through that journey he provides us with detailed accounts of all the major figures. Gardner herself is considered. We learn of the wealthy eccentric and her passion for collecting art. We discover some history of the museum and the lax policies that allowed the robbery to happen, along with Gardner’s own stipulation that the works remain in the places she left them upon her death. This last tidbit provides an ever present reminder for the museum staff that part of their precious treasury is still missing.

From there the paths spread out across Boston, North America, and around the globe. Boser moves from one Boston underworld figure to the next. Each seems a likely suspect. Even when discounted for one reason or another, the author second guesses the mobsters’ involvement. At one point the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger is even implicated. This was before his recent arrest. Bulger had been on the FBI most wanted list for some time, but stealing artwork was minor on the list of charges.

The Boston underworld connections take the author to the British Isles. Some informants suggest that the IRA was connected to the missing paintings; that they may possibly be stored in Ireland. Near this part of the story Boser evaluates his own involvement in the long tale of the missing paintings. He brings the book to a close, leaving the reader still examining the possible leads not yet resolved. And it is this lack of resolution that actually makes the book so intriguing. The reader does not feel left in the lurch. The mystery remains and the reader is still considering the heist, waiting for the eventual return of the paintings.

Ulrich Boser, Smithsonian Books, 2009

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