The Gardner Heist: Blame the Grateful Dead

The infamous empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The infamous empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

On March 18, 1990, the greatest art heist in history occurred.

At 1:24 am, two men wearing police uniforms walked up to the entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One of the men pressed the buzzer near the door. “Police! Let us in,” he said. “We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” Inside, the guard buzzed them in.

“You look familiar,” one of the officers said to the guard. “I think we have a warrant for your arrest.”

The security guard, Rick Abath, a recent dropout out of the Berklee College of Music, was worried. He feared that if arrested, he would not be in court until the next day, and he had tickets to a Grateful Dead concert in Hartford for that night.

For a self-professed hippie and Deadhead, Abath was determined to not miss the concert. He stepped away from behind the desk, and away from the only alarm button in the museum that could alert the police.

“You’re not being arrested, this is a robbery,” one of the burglars said.

Abath was told to summon the other guard on duty. He did so, and after that, the two men were taken to the basement where their hands, feet, and heads were duct taped. Set forty feet away from each other, they were then handcuffed to the pipes.

In the span of thirty minutes, as Abath hummed the Bob Dylan song, “I Shall be Released,” the thieves made off with five hundred million dollars worth of art – the largest theft of private property in America’s history.

Although it would be naive to say that the Gardner had been ripped of the heart of its collection – their Italian Renaissance paintings are highly prized – it is still, no doubt, a travesty that two of their undisputed masterpieces were taken.

It would be further naive of me to operate on the basis that these two masterpieces – Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and Vermeer’s “The Concert” – are what constitutes the only works worth knowing or mentioning about from the hoard of stolen artworks. In fact, the thieves stole no less than a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, five Degas’, a Manet, an ancient Chinese bronze beaker, and a bronze Napoleonic finial.

It it is the last two, the “eccentric” works from the haul, that are so often derided by the press. Commonly, the thieves are lambasted as dull-wits for their – let’s face it – odd selection of artworks. Clearly, as some have said, this was not a well thought out robbery; the robbers were obviously not art connoisseurs. Instead of taking works by Degas which hardly would go for much on the art market, or the two curious objects already mentioned, the thieves could have stolen the Gardner’s crown jewel, “The Rape of Europa” by Titian. From a monetary perspective, “Europa” alone is likely worth more than Rembrandt’s “Galilee” or Vermeer’s “The Concert.” But that’s the enduring mystery of the Gardner heist: we may never know why the robbers chose to steal the artworks they did.

However, that’s not to say the ones they did steal are entirely insignificant. In fact, one of the two “eccentric” choices is hugely symbolic. In the case of the finial, it is a bronze eagle that would have sat atop one of Napoleon’s famous standards (in other words, a regimental flag), which would have been carried into battle by his powerful Grande Armee that subdued much of Europe during the early 1800’s. For opposing forces, to capture an “eagle” would have been a great and unusual accomplishment. It was a surefire way to gain notoriety and a promotion for a soldier. Despite this symbolic importance, I doubt the robbers knew much about it though. It’s more likely they mistook the bronze for gold.

Napoleonic flag finial.

The Napoleonic flag finial.

On the other hand, I can’t say what importance the bronze beaker could have possibly had to the thieves. The vessel dates back to the Shang dynasty, 1200-1100 B.C. Due to its age, it was the oldest artwork taken by the robbers. The function of the beaker was for drinking wine or as a means of making an offering to a god or spirit in memory of those who have perished. Quite why the looters wanted the object, given its somewhat feeble monetary value, is baffling.

The odd Chinese beaker.

The odd Chinese beaker.

But those are the two irregular objects, the other stolen works are more substantial in importance.

One of these works is a Dutch landscape painting once thought to be by Rembrandt. It is “Landscape with an Obelisk,” now attributed to Govaert Flinck, an artist who once studied under Rembrandt.

Flinck worked in Rembrandt’s studio, a place where numerous 17th century Dutch artists such as Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Carel Fabritius, and Nicolaes Maes studied. Flinck worked there during 1631-2, in step with Rembrandt’s most prosperous period in Amsterdam. Apparently, it would seem that Flinck is only noteworthy for imitating Rembrandt in his style so much so, that one of Flinck’s self-portraits was commonly thought to be by the master himself.

In 1900, at the time “Landscape with an Obelisk” was bought by Isabella Stewart Gardner (a female patron of the arts responsible for the collection at the Gardner), she said, “I really don’t adore Rembrandt. I only like him.” Of course, in 1980, the attribution to Rembrandt was refuted, and quite rightly so. To think that the painting was bought through Bernard Berenson, that “self-deluded” scholar who pioneered connoisseurship, and invented the market for Old Masters, is curious indeed, because the painting does not even depict Holland at all.

“Landscape with an Obelisk,” Govaert Flinck.

The landscape itself is strange. The distant mountains in the background and the enormous trees do not scream Holland. The painting does resemble Rembrandt’s own landscapes from the 1630’s, but it does not match in quality “The Mill,” once thought to be “the most famous landscape in the world” by one 19th century collector, and once sought after by Gardner.

No doubt, it is possible the thieves – in a hurry – may have stolen the Flinck under the suspicion that it was also by Rembrandt.

They also stole a self-portrait done as an etching by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is widely celebrated for his series of self-portraits he did throughout his life, and it is a shame that one so fine as the one stolen, will likely never be seen again. And as far as etching goes, Rembrandt was the master. Perhaps only Whistler could match him.

“A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” Rembrandt.

One of the towering Rembrandt paintings that was stolen from the Dutch Room was a double portrait, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black.” This was produced during Rembrandt’s commercial phase in Amsterdam, and it’s sitters are the aristocracy of that port city; the haven of trade during Holland’s Golden Age during the 17th century. The map on the wall in the background is a familiar motif in Dutch painting at this time, and it probably indicates that the “gentleman” was a merchant loaded with cash and vanity to boot; a man finally ready to show off his new-found wealth and respectable wife. But the painting possesses a masters touch: look at the faces. The woman seems pious, almost as if she can see a heavenly light radiate from the windows. The man in black seems more sensitive, less masculine. Through their faces, it’s as if Rembrandt foresees the tragic inevitability of tragedy. For a painter often compared to Shakespeare due to his humanity, you expect no less.

The other towering painting depicts a momentous subject: the biblical event of “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (also the title of the painting). It’s a picture that shows the power of art. Rembrandt paints with skill in this one, but what is truly powerful is the weight of human drama – we can sense the huge crash of the waves, the tearing apart of the sail, and the disciple vomiting into the ocean. We can feel their fear – at that moment in time, almost everyone knows where the boat is going: the perilous rocks in the lower left foreground. Its human existence pitted against nature, but faith will win this time. Christ is the only one at ease during the storm, and he will soon rise to calm the sea of Galilee.

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt.

But if you look close enough, you might recognize one face. Yes, that’s Rembrandt clinging the rope and looking out at us. It is a masterful touch in a masterful painting. Rembrandt enables the sense of burgeoning drama: the fragility and the impending all at once. This is Rembrandt’s only seascape. Personally, it’s one of my favorite paintings; if only I could see it.

Some of the other works that were stolen are less fabulous.

As I already mentioned, five works by Degas were stolen. Practically speaking, they are relatively insignificant. All of them are afterthoughts in the world of Degas scholarship, if they are mentioned at all. Nevertheless, they were on public display. These sometimes unfinished works depict everyday scenes; subjects like horse racing and the ballet – two favorite muses for Degas. I will admit, one of them, a work produced with charcoal on white paper, does possess some playful draughtsmanship, which only the French can seem to do well (Matisse is an obvious example). Still, these five rudimentary works by Degas may be of value to only avid collectors or scholars, not the general public I would imagine.

“Program for an artistic soiree,” Degas.

“Chez Tortoni,” Manet.

And of course, there was also the Manet that was stolen. An oil painting, it depicts a French dandy drawing on a sketchpad at a Parisian cafe. Apparently, the cafe was one of Manet’s haunts. How interesting.

I wish I could say that was all. Unfortunately, the thieves still something more valuable, a work that really is priceless: a Vermeer.

All I have to do is mention the name. It almost doesn’t matter what the title of the painting is, the fact that it was painted by Vermeer warrants interest enough. Vermeer was not a prolific artist by any means; only 35 or 36 of his works exist.

What is so miraculous about “The Concert” (and all of Vermeer’s output really) is how still it is. Vermeer himself was the father of at least ten children, and his life was plagued by financial troubles, wars, floods, and a general rat race to the top. His life, in reality, was not as tranquil as his pictures. And this is what is so precious about “The Concert:” it’s a window into other people’s lives depicted with a surprising intensity. The musicians are minutely preoccupied with their music – they seem to have no idea that someone else is looking at them. Like the film director, Alfred Hitchcock, voyeurism is a theme of Vermeer’s work, and it’s an implied way of looking at his paintings that one gradually gathers after a while.

There’s also the painting-within-a-painting (another common usage of Vermeer’s). In the upper right hand corner, a scene suggests illicit sex. In fact, we now know that the painting is “The Procuress,” by the Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. And fascinatingly enough, the painting once belonged to Vermeer’s mother-in-law.

The subtle lighting is also unforgettable. It sparkles off the women’s pearls, the gold threads of the man’s sash, the white silk skirt, and the Persian carpet heaped on the table.

It’s, in short, a magnificent painting. It may be my favorite Vermeer, but of course, I’ve never seen it. And I doubt I ever shall.

It would be unfair of me to be harsh on the security guard, Rick Abath, but it is still a fact that the paintings are missing. Still, he was, after all, “just this hippie guy who wasn’t hurting anything, wasn’t on anybody’s radar, and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”

If only it hadn’t been for the Grateful Dead, Rick.

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