Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Stolen Art Watch, Gardner Art Heist, Yin V Yang

‘Master Thieves’ and ‘The Art of the Con’

The Gardner Museum thieves cut the artworks out of their frames during the 1990 robbery. Credit From "Master Thieves"
On March 18, 1990, at 1:20 in the ­morning, two men dressed in police uniforms demanded entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. When the guard at the front desk complied, they bound him and his partner in handcuffs. “This is a robbery,” the intruders announced. “Don’t give us any problems, and you won’t get hurt.” The senior guard was quick to respond. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They don’t pay me enough to get hurt.”
Inadequate funding was just one of many problems undermining security at the museum when it was hit with the greatest art theft in history. Bequeathed to the city of Boston by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1924, the art-filled palazzo had scarcely been renovated since her death, restricted by a will prohibiting significant changes. Nor were the guards well chosen: One of the night watchmen often ­conducted rounds while high on marijuana. His partner used the vacant museum for trombone practice.
As Stephen Kurkjian shows in “Master Thieves,” the museum’s inadequacies were matched only by the thieves’ carelessness. Major artworks by Rembrandt, including “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” were thrown on the floor to break their protective glass, and then sliced out of their frames with knives. Though a first-rate Vermeer was also part of the haul, the Gardner’s most valuable work, Titian’s “Rape of Europa,” was completely ignored. Instead the thieves nabbed some of the museum’s most trivial objects, like an ancient Chinese vase worth a few thousand dollars.
“This was not a surgical strike,” ­Kurkjian writes with understatement, dismissing the popular notion “that there was a ‘Doctor No’ figure who had commissioned the heist to get his hands on a favored painting.” Working as an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe, Kurkjian has spent much of the past couple of decades trying to figure out who the crooks were and what they were after.
He’s hardly been alone in this endeavor. Ranking the Gardner theft as one of the world’s Top 10 art thefts, the F.B.I. has continuously investigated the heist for the past 25 years. Yet despite countless man-hours and a $5 million reward offered by the Gardner’s trustees, the paintings have stubbornly remained out of sight. More than just a summation of all that’s publicly known about the case — from the thieves’ false mustaches to the F.B.I.’s sting operations — Kurkjian’s book is an impressive attempt to solve the crime by reconsidering the evidence.
Kurkjian does so by focusing on potential motives, starting with a bit of Boston street wisdom, supplemented by an anonymous tip. “During the Mob’s heyday in Boston,” he writes, “just about every criminal in the city believed that the return of a valuable stolen artwork could shorten a prison sentence or even make it go away.” In 1989, that wisdom was put into action when a powerful gangster named Vincent Ferrara was convicted of racketeering. Needing his protection from a rival Boston gang, a fellow mobster named Robert Donati orchestrated the heist, Kurkjian believes, in order to put Ferrara back on the street. However, according to Kurkjian, the overwhelming response to the theft forced Donati to hide the stolen art. Then he was murdered, and the paintings have been missing ever since. And so when it comes to locating them today, Kurkjian surmises, the intricacies of long-ago gang warfare “might just unlock the mystery.”
It’s a plausible theory, if not incontrovertible, and Kurkjian has shared it with the F.B.I. and the Gardner Museum’s head of security, Anthony M. Amore. There’s reason to believe that Amore might be sympathetic, judging from how he characterizes art theft in his own new book, “The Art of the Con”: “High-value paintings are rarely stolen by crooks that can be characterized as professional art thieves,” he writes. “The reason for this is simple: Highly valuable and recognizable masterpieces . . . are exceptionally difficult to fence.” From the thief’s perspective, priceless art is worthless. “The art of art theft is said to be in the selling of the art, not the thievery,” Amore elaborates, comparing it with the art of fraud, which he claims “is in the back story, not in the picture itself.”
And fraud is the central subject of “The Art of the Con.” Following the formula of his first book, “Stealing Rembrandts,” Amore has compiled an assortment of old cases, rehashing past crimes. Some will be familiar to newspaper readers. (One chapter recapitulates the forgery scandal that led to the 2011 closure of Knoedler & Company, one of New York’s most venerable galleries.) Others are obscure for good reason. (Another chapter describes how a Los Angeles art dealer named Tatiana Khan passed off a forged Picasso pastel, claiming it came from the Malcolm Forbes collection. She was caught and convicted, end of story.) Amore brings little insight to these case histories, assembling his narratives from newspaper articles, court records and the occasional interview with law enforcement colleagues.
Nevertheless, some frauds are so interesting that even Amore’s bland retelling can’t quash them. For the manipulation of back story — or provenance, as art professionals call it — few can best Ely Sakhai. In the 1990s, Sakhai began buying second-rate paintings by first-rate Impressionists, purchasing at auction in New York. He would have each of these ­artworks meticulously replicated (including the back of the canvas and frame) by a team of Chinese copyists. Then he would sell the copy with the original certificate of authenticity and auction record to a Japanese collector. Later he would have the original reauthenticated and resell it in New York.
Wolfgang Beltracchi was even more creative in his fabrication of provenance — as he had to be, since his forgeries were never direct copies. Beltracchi specialized in Modernists. Studying their style and using period materials, he would paint the masters’ “unpainted works” (as he provocatively phrased it), contributing new art to their oeuvres.
In order to explain the sudden appearance of undocumented masterpieces, Beltracchi cast his wife’s deceased grandfather as a prewar German collector, claiming that the seller was the German Jewish dealer Alfred Flechtheim, whose records were lost during the Third Reich. (Beltracchi supported this provenance by sticking fake Flechtheim Gallery labels on the back of his paintings.) Hundreds of Beltracchi’s forgeries were sold in the 1990s and 2000s, often at public auction, for prices as high as several million ­dollars. One fake was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What brought Beltracchi down was neither connoisseurship nor historical research but the detection of an anachronistic pigment in one of his paintings.

Amore attributes Beltracchi’s feat of deception to skill with paint and ­cleverness with provenance. Less obviously, he credits Beltracchi’s all-­encompassing ego. “In fact, his hubris may have been the essential part of his success,” Amore writes. It’s a point worth considering: Can a kind of greatness be attained through delusions of grandeur?
But if hubris is intoxicating to the art forger, it’s toxic for an art investigator. All of Amore’s stories end in punishment, an unrealistic representation of criminal activity. More misleadingly, Amore presents scientific analysis as an infallible new weapon against fraud. In fact, investigators’ overconfidence in scientific detection techniques has been exploited by forgers for at least the past century.
Hubris may even be what’s holding up the Gardner Museum investigation. Kurkjian revealingly shows how the F.B.I. has systematically shut out lower echelons of law enforcement like the Boston police, despite their superior knowledge of local gangs. Journalists are held in equal contempt: Kurkjian reports that neither the F.B.I. nor Amore has bothered to follow up on his investigation of Robert Donati’s surviving contacts and family.
What makes Kurkjian’s book so gripping is precisely the quality lacking in Amore’s: an accomplished investigator’s sense of open-minded humility.

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