Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Monday, September 03, 2007

Stolen Art Watch, Montreal 35 years and Counting, Stolen Gardner Art Boston 17.5 Years and Counting !!!

35 years after daring theft of paintings, mystery lingers
Bill Bantey

For CanWest News ServicePublished: Sunday, September 02, 2007

MONTREAL -- Were the paintings destroyed? Is the new "owner" sitting on them, afraid to show them off? Could they be in South America?

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, three armed and hooded bandits broke into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through a skylight under repair and made off with 18 paintings and 37 objects of decorative arts and jewelry.

The three armed thieves used a ladder propped against a back wall of the museum to enter through the skylight which was only partially alarmed due to repairs.

Some 20 more paintings were left behind after the thieves accidentally set off a door alarm while leaving the museum.

It was the biggest theft in the museum's 112-year history. The loot, valued at $2 million by the museum, included a Rembrandt oil, Landscape with Cottages, valued at $1 million in 1972.

All but one of the stolen paintings -- a small Jan Breughel The Elder -- remain missing today.

David Giles Carter, director of the museum at the time of the robbery, says the worst possible scenario is that the paintings have been destroyed, perhaps because the pictures were too "hot" to be disposed of on the art market.

He says it's also possible the paintings are hidden somewhere by the new owner, who might be "sitting on them for a lifetime." Sean B. Murphy, then president of the museum, considers it possible the theft was a "robbery on consignment" and the works have found their way to South America.

"Many wonderful things happened at the museum during my presidency, but this was one of the worst," he said recently. "The lessons of the robbery are that a museum needs a first-rate security system and the insurance to go with it."

The museum now has that state-of-the-art system.
Another Breughel The Elder, two Corots, two Millets, a Courbet, a Daumier, a Delacroix and a Gainsborough were among the stolen art.

A second group of paintings, including an El Greco, a Picasso and a Tintoretto, were abandoned by the thieves when one of them inadvertently tripped an alarm near a side door.

Carter actually spoke to one of the thieves, he recalled. He gave the thief the nom de guerre "Port of Montreal" because those words appeared on a brown envelope the museum director received from the robbers containing snapshots of the works to prove they had them in their possession.

But negotiations eventually broke down when the thieves became suspicious -- with reason -- that a trap had been laid for them.

Carter was on holiday when the robbery occurred and returned to find "a scene of wartime desolation" in the gallery.

It was a "low ebb of fortune and morale." "A scene out of a movie" was how the museum's then-assistant registrar and chief of the catalogue Pauline Gravel described it.

The skylight through which the burglars entered was usually connected to the security system, but a construction crew working at the building had dropped a plastic sheet over the alarm, neutralizing it.

A first guard was surprised about 1:30 a.m. He had just made his rounds on the second floor and was preparing to take a tea break when the intruders ordered him to the ground.

He didn't move fast enough and one of the bandits fired his sawed-off shotgun into the ceiling. The two other guards on duty came to investigate and they, too, were overpowered, bound and gagged and made to lie on the floor of what was then known as Arthur Lismer Hall.

By the time one of the guards had freed himself and called police, an hour had passed. The art and the intruders were gone. It was about 3 a.m. The thieves had pulled off the robbery in about 30 minutes and escaped.

The thieves demanded a ransom of 25 per cent of the value of the stolen objects, $500,000, but later lowered the figure to $250,000.

Carter demanded further proof that the robbers still had the goods and asked that they produce one of the paintings. He was directed to a locker in Central Station. There Youngson found the missing painting by Breughel (Landscape With Buildings and Wagon).

Telephone lines were tapped but the calls were never long enough to be traced. A rendezvous was arranged by Carter, who told the thieves an insurance adjuster -- in reality, a police officer -- would bring cash to a meeting in exchange for one of the paintings.

The meeting was aborted, however, when a police patrol car was spotted nearby.

Art Hostage comments:

I wonder how many times these paintings have been offered back to the Montreal Museum via Police, but Police would not santion a deal/buy back ??????????????
I have put out the word to the Underworld, (I know a major underworld figure who has dealt in Canada, knows all the big criminal players) that Art Hostage is keen to hear if Authorities have been offered these pictures over the years but refused.
Also I want to know the current location of these stolen artworks, don't everyone !!
Unfortunately in 1972 current FBI Icon Robert Wittman was a young man and not the Worlds Greatest Art Sleuth as he is today.

Bloody shame, Bob Wittman would have got the Montreal pictures back and not allowed the sting to be exposed.

However, this case should act as a warning to those who seek to try and recover just one or two of the Stolen Gardner paintings.

Although it may be attractive to recover a couple of Gardner paintings during a sting operation, the net result will be driving the rest of the Gardner paintings deep underground where they may remain for another 20 years, replicating the Montreal case.

Art Hostage, on the other hand, would rather see a deal made that allows all the Gardner paintings to surface and then decisions can be made as to how and if there are to be charges, arrests, etc.

Bitter as the pill may be to swallow about paying a reward for the Gardner art, and the fact a deal may stick in the craw, what is the alternative?

Pay out the reward and keep record of where the money goes.

Or, even better, allow the Gardner paintings to surface, reward to be paid, then just apologise for incompetence in not being able to prosecute in the Gardner case and regard it as "The one that got away"

As with the Montreal paintings, the Gardner paintings are being held by organised crime and if a sting operation were to be successful it would only lead to the recovery of minor artworks, leaving the Vermeer etc "deep-sixed" and out of reach for many years to come.

This is a real dilemma for those of us who are desperate for the Vermeer and Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee to be recovered.

I want to make a personal plea to the staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Please, please, please consider the wider picture before you embark on recovering minor stolen paintings from the Gardner Collection.
Would you rather have two pictures back and be deprived of the main ones and the rest???????

Is the lure of a few media headlines in recovering a couple of Stolen Gardner artworks worth risking not recovering the main ones, Vermeer etc for the next 20 years???

However, if the Vermeer and the Rembrandt were to be the initial two offered back by the Underworld, it may be worth getting those back in some kind of sting operation.

Problem is the people who have the Gardner art are not that gullible and I fear a gun battle and the loss of life if they are cornered.
Worse still, the Gardner paintings could be damaged.
Imagine, the Vermeer with bullet holes or ripped to shreds by the bad guys during the struggle.

That thought sends a shudder down my spine.

As I have been stating from the start, treat the Gardner case as a one off, a special case whereby a buy back is authorised, otherwise we will just have to wait in hope, as with the Montreal case 1972, 35 years and counting.

1 comment:

Kellsboro Jack said...

An interesting case that, aside from this anniversary article, appears to have faded from memory.

It took almost 21 years before the recovery of the so-called San Francisco Rembrandt - pilfered in the Christmas eve heist at the de Young Museum.

I'm certain one or more of the Gardner items will turn up in the next few years unexpectedly.

Was Myles Connor ever a vistor to Canada? ;>