- - Friday, August 19, 2011

STEALING REMBRANDTS: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF NOTORIOUS ART HEISTS
By Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg
Palgrave Macmillan, $25, 241 pages, illustrated

According to Interpol, art crime is one of the underworld’s growth areas, trailing only the drug trade and arms sales in dollar volume. The FBI estimates that theft, fraud and trafficking in

stolen art total about $6 billion per year. Yet art theft and its offshoots remain among the quirkiest of crime modes, with a remarkably low success rate compared with, say, robbing convenience stores.

The story of important art thefts has been chronicled in workmanlike fashion by Anthony M. Amore, a lecturer on art crime, and Tom Mashberg, a longtime writer for the Boston Herald.


The authors make quick work of the myth that great art is stolen for the delectation of some reclusive billionaire on his Mediterranean island. Most art heists are by petty crooks who are drawn to Rembrandts in part from name recognition and in part because there are so many of them. The Dutch master’s total production is estimated at about 2,000, and the thefts go on. In the two decades between 1959 and 1979, an estimated 25 Rembrandts were stolen, often cut from their frames.

Museums are easy targets, for they are committed to providing the public with access to their holdings. The only physical deterrents, the authors point out, often come “in the form of velvet ropes and guards whose long days of boredom can be read in their slumping body language.” Even when more advanced security is in place - security cameras and laser beams - they often depend on electrical outlets easily neutralized by thieves.

Prime time for thefts - counterintuitively - is often in the daylight hours when a museum is busiest. Mr. Amore and Mr. Mashberg tell of a heist at the Worcester, Mass., art museum in 1972. When two workers began methodically to remove several paintings from a second-floor gallery, visitors assumed they were museum employees doing their jobs. The thieves were spotted as they left with their booty but succeeded in getting away.

Art theft is of little interest to the man on the street, in part because blood is rarely spilled and in part because the victims most often are rich collectors or faceless institutions. As such, victims are often averse to publicity. A museum sometimes will conceal its loss rather than embarrass its professional staff.

But pity the poor perps. Nothing is more difficult to convert into cash than great art, for it will be recognized everywhere as having been stolen. One thief became so discouraged at his inability to fence a picture that he returned his loot in exchange for a reduced sentence. The authors note that while the recovery rate for stolen art in general is low, the recovery rate for masterpieces is impressive, perhaps as high as 80 percent. The most profitable area of art theft thus appears to be little-known works that can be moved and marketed without drawing undue attention.

The best hope for anyone who steals a Rembrandt is to treat it as a kidnapping: negotiate with the museum for its return. The authors think a considerable amount of art has been recovered by negotiation, but institutions understandably are reticent about acknowledging such ransom payments.

The most famous art heist in recent decades remains the theft of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The story has been told many times: Fake cops lured the museum’s two security guards to a place where they were seized and bound with duct tape. The alarm system was disabled, enabling the two hoods to spend a leisurely hour removing the precious paintings, including Rembrandt’s only known seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

More than two decades have passed since the Gardner break-in, and investigators have tracked down leads all over the world. Scores of tips have turned out to be hoaxes. The museum has offered a reward of $5 million, together with immunity from prosecution, but to no avail. When art thefts are solved, it is often within a year of when they are committed. Time is running out for the Gardner Museum.

• Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.