Monday, March 18, 2013

Progress In Solving Decades-Old Art Theft

The year was 1990. Some years earlier, a friend had given me a wonderful framed print of one of Vermeer's few extant paintings, depicting a family making music: a woman sings, accompanied by a lutenist and a harpsichordist. The significance of the scene had to be explained to me: by their dress and their surroundings, this family was of the emerging middle class in the lowlands (today's Netherlands).

In France, around the same time, only the wealthy could afford harpsichords; generally they chose large instruments (2x8', 1x4', two manuals) by the Blanchet or Taskin families, cases finished in a shellac polished so that it looked 10 feet deep, trimmed in gold foil, with an elaborate soundboard painting, often of a pastoral scene.

By comparison, the middle class of the lowlands had a musical sophistication of their own, and a harpsichord-making family, Ruckers, built astonishingly good instruments for sale to them: smaller, narrower compass (mine is from G below great C to c''' two octaves above middle C), cases painted rather than shellacked, trimmed using gold paint and raw wood, and lids papered with elaborately patterned paper on which a motto was often painted (sometimes in misspelled Latin), with or without a soundboard painting, or (in the case of my own) small painted decorations... birds, flowers, insects etc. In other words, these instruments were clearly down-class from the large French two-manual jobs, but they were of such good quality that the well-known French makers often took them apart, enlarged the soundboards, added registers and manuals, etc. to turn them into fancy French harpsichords.

Child of the (lower-) middle class that I am, I confess I prefer the smaller Flemish instruments. That is what I own; that is what I performed on for many years. And that is clearly what the family in the Vermeer painting have and are using. I love my Vermeer print, both for the art and for the reference.

Back to 1990. As Igor Bobic of TPM tells us, the original of that painting, hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, was stolen in broad daylight by thieves dressed as Boston policemen, and, along with other paintings of comparably high value, spirited away and sold. (One wonders: was it a "theft to order"?) While the FBI was and is on the case, the paintings are still missing almost a quarter century later. Now there are leads, and the FBI thinks it knows who the thieves are. Here's Bobic again:
“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft," Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said in a statement. “With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.”

The FBI added that while they tracked the movements of the paintings after they were sold, they are not able to establish their current locations. Thirteen works of art—including rare paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer -- were stolen in a brazen heist involving thieves dressed as Boston police officers.
I was crestfallen at the news of the theft. Almost a quarter century later, I am still saddened. Art was taken from public view and secreted away for the private pleasure of wealthy people willing to steal it, damn them to Hell.

Will that painting be returned to public view within my lifetime? I don't know. I've often doubted it. But perhaps there is some hope now.


  1. For e there's something heinous out theft of public art. I love Vermeer and of course van Meegeren!

  2. "van Meegeren"

    Thanks for introducing me, jams; I didn't know van Meegeren. Somehow, art forgery isn't quite the crime that art theft is: there is a creative element, and if the wealthy patron appreciates the art for its own sake (rather than merely as an investment), less harm is done, even if a crime is committed. Someone as good as Vermeer deserves to be celebrated as much as Vermeer.

    When I think of art theft, I always think of Nazis after W.W.II, plundering the museums of countries they invaded and occupied. It was not enough to steal people's self-government; the bastards had to steal their creative work as well. It's a deplorable business.



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