book review: Master Thieves

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Master Thieves By Stephen Kurkjian.
Public Affairs| March 2015|272 pages |$25.99| ISBN: 978-1-610394239

Rating: ***/5*

“In many ways, the trail I followed in the Gardner case was uniquely Boston, a historic but small city where bank robber and bank president can live side by side in the same neighborhood, or, as with the infamous Bulger family, where the notorious gang leader and Senate president were brothers.”

In the winter of 1990 when thieves posed as police officers and stole thirteen works of art with a value of $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [ISGM]. I was merely blocks away immersed in my junior year at Simmons College. Not only sad for the Boston arts community but for the world this theft remains unsolved. Author Stephen Kurkjian writes: “Twenty-five years later the artwork remains missing, and the empty frames and unfilled spaces on antique desks at the museum still stand as grim reminders of the poor security and futile investigative work that followed the theft.” Now the ISGM bears a new wing and new entrance. Not sure if Ms. Gardner would approve of this extension. However to its beautiful construction, gorgeous views of Boston and the ability to showcase new artists undoubtedly Ms. Gardner, an ardent patron of the arts, would approve.

The ISGM is truly a hidden gem in the Fens. While it’s right around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts it’s not visited as often or known as well sometimes I think the development and marketing for the museum could use great improvement but they’ve failed to hire me in a development communications role though I’ve applied. Kurkjian writes: “One option [Gardner director] Hawley hasn’t tried is using the Internet and social media to maximize awareness of the specific pieces that are missing and encouraging the public’s involvement in the search.” This is true. I’ve never seen the Gardner museum tweeting information. This year on its Instagram account there was a hashtag #GardnerTheft25 and pictures of the rooms with empty frames but no pictures of the missing artwork. However if you go to the museum website, there’s an in-depth feature on the missing thirteen pieces.

“Thirteen pieces of artwork were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum on March 18, 1990, and many weren’t well known to the public at large. For twenty-three years there had been no “proof of life” of a single piece, and while people might recall what the two most valuable pieces—Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert—looked like, the lesser works were largely unknown.”

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and former The Boston Globe investigative reporter Kurkjian writes about the most likely theory for the theft: it was carried out by Boston gangsters and the art remains somewhere on the East Coast. He and others believe that Bobby Guarente, David Turner and Robert Gentile carried out the heist. It’s now been 25 years since the theft and while several years ago the FBI announced it was close to making an arrest and recovery, nothing’s occurred. Ms. Gardner’s art remains at large. I wrote a children’s book about Isabella Stewart Gardner and having completed extensive research for the project I know what she went through to curate her collection and create the one-of-a-kind private museum in the Fens.

Kurkjian chronicles his role in covering the theft as a journalist as well as in doing research for the book. He interviewed countless mob associates as well as museum security and FBI. Thoroughly researched, Kurkjian sufficiently corroborates the theory that it was a gang job. Back as far as 1981 gangsters such as Louis Royce knew about the weak security system in the Gardner museum. In fact as a child, Royce slept overnight in the museum. “During his ensuing years as a criminal, Royce had hatched a plan to rob the Gardner of some of its most precious artifacts.” However Royce didn’t need the paintings for a trade like some gangsters use art to secure the release of associates. “Instead, he had riches in mind. Royce and his fellow gangsters put the word out, seeking a commission from a wealthy art collector connected to the underworld.”

The opposing gangs and gangsters confused me. Who is connected to whom and who works for whom unfortunately bogs down reading. While there’s a cast of characters at the start it gets complicated to keep referring to it. Also Kurkjian repeats theories as if each chapter serves as a stand-alone piece but they don’t quite read that way. It’s not a longform news article. Or I’d just read that as I have. I’ve read nearly everything about ISGM and the theft. Not sure why anyone, even a gangster, would want paintings ripped out of the frames hanging on the walls. Even private art dealers I don’t quite understand unless they lend their art for others to view. Isabella Stewart Gardner created this museum to share her art with the masses.

Some interesting information culled from Master Thieves:

–The FBI has never sought assistance from the Boston Police or the Massachusetts State Police. Many officers would know Boston’s crime world rather well.

–Being close to the museum entrance, the Yellow and Blue Room galleries were easiest rooms to steal paintings from.

–After the theft an art critic for the Boston Globe wrote about Gardner’s inability to raise enough funds during the 1980s—“The trustees, traditionally a self-perpetuating Brahmin board of seven Harvard-educated men, acted as if fund-raising were tantamount to begging.”

–In 1989 it was reported that only two police officers in the United States investigated art thefts full-time. One in Los Angeles, the other in New York. On the other hand, Italy’s art theft unity has eighty agents.

–A Cezanne stolen in 1978 from Stockbridge, Mass. was recovered twenty-one years later.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Public Affairs.

purchase at Amazon: Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist

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