"Master Thieves" Author Talks Gratitude and Art

For Isabella Stewart Gardner, her museum was an expression of gratitude.

Posted Feb 12, 2016

Source: Commons.wikimedia

It was a gift-giving woman who created a museum for her Boston neighbors that is now visited by people from around the world. She created the treasure trove after embarking on a journey, at the suggestion of her physicians, to overcome depression following the loss of her only child. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a unique setting of intimate rooms and gardens. One day, some 26 years ago the unthinkable happened -- art works were stolen. While few of us remember the details, suddenly the story is back in the news. It seems that there has been a secretly commuted sentence of a suspect who may now be willing to talk, according to a recent Boston Globe article. 

However, Steve Kurkjian, author of Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist is talking -- talking with passion and anger. “When artworks are stolen in Europe we can feel their national mourning  as agencies pool resources and commit to finding the pieces.”

The art heist took place in Boston some 26 years ago on March 16,1990. In sharing the story with me Kurkjian expressed sadness that these paintings have not been found and feels it is a grave insult to a gift-giving woman. He sees the museum as her gift of gratitude after recovering from her depression.

She collected furniture, fabric, and artwork.  Kurkjian also pointed out: “She sponsored painters, musicians, and dancers and, after her death, gave thousands to organizations to protect children and animals and endowed her museum for others to enjoy.”

He said he wrote the book in an effort to “keep up the pressure” to find these works. 

The stolen works include: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, "A Self Portrait," an etching on paper; Vermeer’s The Concert; and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk; as well as a Chinese vase taken from the Dutch Room on the second floor. Additionally there were sketches by Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880). (www.gardnermuseum.org)

Source: en.wikimedia.org

Kurkjian has a unique idea to help locate the paintings. He would like to see recognizable faces in the center of empty frames. "I'd like to see the mayor, the governor, and even the cardinal, hold up the empty frames and challenge people to come forward. I want an appeal to the conscience of this city. Right now we are trapped in a conspiracy of silence, " he said.

A Pulitzer and passion

Kurkjian believes that it is time to "impress on the public that this loss affects each of us personally," he said. "Right now the loss is treated like a 'cold case' but that leaves the responsibility of the recovery solely in the hands of the investigators and we need to involve the public." 

A former member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, who has shared three Pulitzers, Kurkjian is somber when talking about the art theft. He reminded me that Mrs. Gardner treated her museum as if it was a home, and he stressed that the extraordinary collection that she assembled was on display "for all of us, rich or poor, newcomer or Brahmin."

He added: "She wanted her collection to inspire in us an appreciation for art, and through that appreciation to inspire an American tradition of art. Yet that tradition cannot be inspired with some of the greatest masterpieces in her home missing - the only Vermeer in New England, Rembrandt's only seascape. "

Kurkjian added: "Imagine someone coming into your home, and then leaving with a hand painted plate from your wedding, a portrait of your children, or just a simple memento?  You would be outraged, and that sense of loss needs to be shown here because these masterpieces were on her walls to inspire us. Yet for a quarter century, neither we nor our children have been able to view them." 

He then pondered, "If someone stole a World Series Trophy, would the public tolerate such a loss? I want a public outcry that convinces someone, somewhere to say, 'I know where to find these treasures.'  And if they do come forward, Boston, which is now universally seen as a world-class city, and the art world in general will view it with the greatest of gratitude.

"For me -- now that TriStar Productions has preempted the movie rights to Master Thieves, it would give the story the happy ending it deserves," he said.

Copyright 2015 Rita Watson

Gardner suspect’s sentence was cut, Boston Globe, 2016/01/13