Empty Frames: Theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On Wednesday I went to a really cool event at the Whistler House Museum. Lowell has a regular free lecture series called the Parker Lectures that’s really cool, and a good example of how much there is to do in our city. This one was right up my alley, former Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian talking about the 1990 theft of 13 artworks form the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He’s been writing about this story since it happened, and it’s clear he’s still fascinated by it.

Wednesday I was feeling a little down, for reasons that are probably obvious. It’s not that I was surprised by Tuesday’s results, but I’ll be honest and say that I am disappointed. Nothing against any particular winner, but I wish that things had gone in a direction that more accurately reflects the diversity of Lowell. In every sense.

So I went to this event feeling glum. And it made me feel better, but also worse. Better because Stephen Kurkjian is a great storyteller, the place was packed, and the crowd was in the palm of his hand. Here’s an article he wrote a few years ago on the topic that captures some of the crazy twists and turns he was telling us about.

It made me feel worse, because this story is such a pointless tragedy. Although we don’t know who stole the thirteen works of art, Kurkjian speculate’s that it was most likely small time thugs with no real connections to the art world. Although they stole several extremely valuable works, they also took several less important items, and passed by others that were probably worth more. That means that they may not have ever been able to fence them, and the paintings could easily now be forgotten in somebody’s leaky basement, lost not only to public ownership but gone forever.

Vermeer’s “The Concert”, the most valuable of the stolen paintings. One of only 34 known works by Vermeer.

It hasn’t come up here much, but I’m a museum professional. This story hits home for me in a number of ways. For one thing, I know how hard museums work to protect their collection, and I can can imagine the heartbreak of failing at that mission. I know museums can seem a little frou frou, but I truly believe that the work they do is important. Preserving things for future generations, whether that’s history, art, or nature, speaks to everything that’s best about being human. Taking time to look at things that are beautiful, or to be moved by the stories of the past, gives our lives context and meaning, and helps us to escape our own narrow viewpoint. It means that we as people are more then the work we do to make a living, and that our society is about more than just making the most money and the most stuff we can.

Which is why the theft is so painful. The people who stole this art didn’t see it as beautiful, or moving. They saw it as worth money.

This is a little ironic, because I completely understand why the theft happened. Money, again. The Gardner Museum’s security measures weren’t what they should have been, but it’s easy for me to see why that would be true. Museums almost never have enough money or staff (because staff cost money!) to do everything they need to do as well as they would like to do it. If our society did its calculations a little bit differently, museums would be better able to protect their collections, both from theft and in the million other ways that they need. When we try to make do with less, sooner or later that has a price.

We may never see these works of art again. It’s possible no person ever will.  It’s a greater tragedy because it was an avoidable one.

Stolen Manet portrait. If only we could see what he’s looking at right now.


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