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30 Years Ago, An Audacious Museum Heist In Boston


And now for a story that has nothing to do with coronavirus. It is the tale of a notorious art heist that's still unsolved. Thirty years ago today, two men posing as police officers stole 13 works of art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports on the lasting legacy of one of the most costly art crimes in history.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Anne Hawley had just been hired as the Gardner Museum's director when the theft occurred. Sitting in her home in Cambridge, Mass., she pulls out a catalogue and opens it to the rarest of the stolen works - "The Concert" by the Dutch master Yohannes Vermeer.

ANNE HAWLEY: Look at the colors. You have this extraordinary red that he uses for the back of the chair of the man who is playing the lute.

SHEA: A woman sits to his left at a harpsichord. To the right, another is about to break into song. The just over 350-year-old Vermeer is one of only about 34 works by him, so its loss is significant. Now retired, Hawley hopes she lives long enough to see it again, along with the 12 other stolen works, including paintings by Rembrandt and Manet. After the robbery, Hawley decided to re-hang their empty frames.

HAWLEY: So that it would remind visitors and ourselves of what we had lost and be a sign of mourning for all of us.

ANTHONY AMORE: I've been here for 15 years now looking to fill these frames.

SHEA: That's Anthony Amore, director of security and chief investigator at the Gardner Museum. Standing in the ornate Dutch Room gallery on the second floor, he says the empty frames tear at his heart and pride as each anniversary passes.

AMORE: You know, I remember the 20 like it was yesterday, 25 was a blur. Now we're at the 30. The work continues, but when these anniversaries come, it's a reminder of what you have not accomplished. It's a difficult thing to imagine that it would take this long to find them.

SHEA: A perennial challenge is keeping the missing art in the public's eye. The museum's put up billboards, upped the reward to $10 million and, for this year's 30th anniversary, created an online audio walk, led by Amore, retracing the thieves' footsteps.

AMORE: The motion sensors show us the path thieves took that night. That's the route we're following.

SHEA: While the crime captivates so many, Amore says, in reality, most wouldn't recognize the artworks if they saw them. In November, he and the FBI held a symposium for 100 police chiefs and investigators to detail the theft and show them images of the stolen paintings, including Rembrandt's epic "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee." It depicts Christ and the 12 apostles frantically trying to bring their small boat under control.

RONNI BAER: Half of the disciples are in the light, and the other half are in the dark. One is vomiting over the side of the boat. And Christ is calm in the middle of it all.

SHEA: Ronni Baer saw Rembrandt's huge painting many times as a graduate student. Today she's a distinguished curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and specializes in European paintings. She says the loss of the Rembrandt is significant because it's his only seascape. And "Storm On The Sea Of Galilee" shows the painter's skill as a storyteller, one who captures the range of human emotions in each disciple's response to crisis.

BAER: It's ironic that we're talking about it today with the whole fear of the coronavirus.

SHEA: Vermeer's "The Concert," she says offers, the antidote.

BAER: One of the interpretations of that painting is that music is a balm for the soul.


SHEA: Jazz trumpeter Jason Palmer was a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston when he visited the Gardner Museum and saw the empty frames for the first time. Then he heard a podcast about the theft and was inspired to compose a piece for each missing artwork to mark the 30th anniversary.


SHEA: Standing next to the empty frame that once held Vermeer's "The Concert," Palmer says his dream is for someone to hear his new recording, maybe another musician, and be inspired to dig deeper.

JASON PALMER: Yeah. Let me see what these works looked like. And then they ended up playing like a private gig in France or wherever. And they look on the wall, and they see that stolen work. And so we make that connection, and then it's - you know, the works are recovered.

SHEA: That's curator Ronni Baer's hope, too, but after 30 years, she's worried.

BAER: I wish I could somehow comfort myself in knowing they're somewhere, but I don't know they still exist.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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