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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TORN FROM A FRAME

I have been in love with Isabel Steward Gardner for more than forty years. And she’s been dead for almost 70 years. Isabel was the daughter of wealth, who, as was the practice in the Gilded Age, married into even more wealth. She lived in a Back Bay mansion at 152 Beacon Street. And in the tiny fenced front yard, common to most Back Bay mansions, there grew a single tree, in which, legend has it, Isabel used to perch on summer afternoons to unexpectedly greet her startled visitors. Of course she was also quoted as saying, “Why spoil a thing with the truth.”
After her son died of pneumonia at the age of two, in March of 1865, Isabel’s husband, Jack, began to take the broken hearted Isabel on European trips, where Isabel courted the likes of artists such as John Singer Sargent and James Whistler, and writers such as Henry James. Isabel loved to collect art, and to attend boxing matches and Harvard football games. She bet the ponies at Suffolk Downs and advised her fellow blue bloods, “Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it.” And she once scandalized proper Boston society at a Philharmonic Concert by wearing a formal evening gown adorned with a headband that read “Oh, You Red Sox!”After her husband Jack died in 1898 Isabel built herself a Venetian Mansion in the reclaimed marshlands which would shortly give Fenway Park its name. Isabel called her new mansion “Fenway Court”, and it held her personal art collection. And it was there she died of a stroke, in 1924. Isabel left all her fortune to the ASPCA and endowed her home as the “Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum”. And that was why I as so personally offended by the St. Patrick’s Day robbery of the Gardner in 1990. What was stolen was not just art. It had all been the personal property of Isabel. It had all meant something special to very special woman. How dare those thugs steal from a great lady like her!They still don’t know who did it. But the money is on the same North End gangs that a generation earlier had robbed the Brinks Armored Car Company. But whereas the Brink’s Job of January 1950 had been the work of mooks who were all caught, the Gardner heist remains a complete and total mystery. No one has been even tried to claim the $5 million reward. The statute of limitations on the theft has run out and no one has felt the need to unburden themselves of guilt or hot paintings. And the only rumor that ever even hinted at the possible return of the 13 stolen masterpieces was probably just a confidence scam.The best guess is the thieves tried it twice. On the second attempt, they succeeded. Shortly after one AM on Monday, March 19, 1990 two mustached “police officers” talked their way into the closed museum and swiftly handcuffed the two inexperienced guards, and then stashed them safely in the museum’s basement. Motion detectors followed the thieves for the next 81 minutes as they separated and each smashed, cut and shattered a dozen paintings from their frames; $400 million dollars worth of Rembrandts, five Degas, a Vermeer and a Manet: and one gold eagle from atop a Napoleonic banner. Then, after removing the video tapes from the VCRs at the security desk, the thieves made two separate trips out to their red hatch back parked in the side street around the corner from the museum, and before 3AM, they and the paintings disappeared forever.The real cops weren’t called until 8:15 AM the next morning. By that time it was likely the paintings were already on their way out of the country. The only description of the thieves that was broadcast was pathetic; one of the men was described as resembling Colonel Klink, from “Hogan’s Heroes”. There were no finger prints left behind, no articles of clothing, and no whispers were ever heard in art or criminal circles. No leads were received until four years later when a letter offered to return the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million. But after a first hint, that letter led nowhere. Again, in 1997, a reporter for the Boston Herald was led blindfolded to a hidden location and shown what he was told were the stolen Rembrandt’s, and even provided with paint chips as proof. But upon further examination the chips could not have been from the painting they were claimed to be from, and the whole thing was eventually written off as an attempt to finagle the freedom of Myles Connor, an art thief already under arrest.
It has been almost twenty years since the dozen paintings were stolen, and increasingly it appears they will never be restored. The lack of any information on the paintings’ whereabouts, or even rumors as to their location would seem to hint that the thieves are not now or perhaps were never in a position where they could blackmail whoever paid them to steal the paintings. There is, of course, no honor amongst theives. So perhaps the theives are dead. And with the passage of time, it becomes clear that whoever masterminded the theft is now, also dead, and their heirs may have decided to destroy the evidence of their family shame. But the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum still keeps the empty frames on the wall, to document the stolen masterpieces which have still not been returned. In a way it is much as Isabel must preserved that torn place in her heart where her little son had once resided.But what a great broad she was.

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