The Biggest Art Theft in American History: Stolen Rembrandt’s Lady and Gentleman in Black
The biggest art theft in American history
occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. The stolen paintings, including the one that hung in this frame, Rembrandt’s “Lady and Gentleman in Black,” remain unrecovered.
It was the art heist of the century, and 20 years on, Boston billboards are being used to jog the public’s memory, reportsTom Moroney
ART LOVERS who didn’t catch Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum before 1990 can now see it on electronic billboards outside Boston – courtesy of the FBI. Twenty years ago, on March 18th, the Dutch master’s only seascape, along with a dozen other artworks, disappeared from the museum. Two billboards began flashing the Rembrandt painting this week, along with the phone number for a “tip line” and information about a $5 million (€3.7 million) reward.
“Maybe somebody will be driving along and say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that painting before!’,” says Rocky Sisson, executive vice-president of Phoenix-based Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, which donated use of the billboards on Interstate 93 and Interstate 495.
The $500 million (€370 million) theft ranks as history’s biggest art heist, says Geoffrey Kelly, the FBI agent in charge of the case for the past eight years. According to the museum’s website, the thieves also took two other Rembrandt works, including A Lady and Gentleman in Black ; one painting each by Vermeer, Manet and Flinck; five sketches by Degas; a Chinese beaker from the Shang Dynasty; and an eagle finial from the top of a Napoleonic flag.
FBI agents have travelled to Paris, Japan and other destinations to track hundreds of leads in the past two decades, Kelly says. “My guess is that it was probably local guys. The thieves may have planned to use the art as bargaining chips to barter for reduced punishment for future crimes, rather than intending to sell it. There’s a very strong possibility that these guys went in to do a simple robbery and unwittingly committed the heist of the century.”
The crime began at 1.24am when two thieves disguised as police officers were admitted to the museum by a security guard. The pair bound and gagged both guards on duty with handcuffs and duct tape, then spent 81 minutes choosing their loot, according to the FBI.
The Boston billboards aren’t the first to be used by the FBI. Billboards have helped the agency solve 35 crimes in the past two years, including robberies and missing persons cases, says spokesman Chris Allen. But the FBI’s Boston office hasn’t received any tips since the electronic billboards went active with Rembrandt’s work three days ago.
Museum officials are confident that the paintings will be returned some day, according to Katherine Armstrong of the Gardner, in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. The museum keeps vacant spaces where the four largest stolen paintings were displayed.
“What keeps me up at night? Going into the museum and seeing those empty spaces,” says Geoffrey Kelly.
– Washington Post