Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: The Gardner Heist

The largest unsolved art heist in history happened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Two men stole twelve works of art including a Vermeer and several Rembrandts. The ripped and cut paintings out of frames, and the lot has never been found. Boser's book sets out to try and find out what happened to the missing art. The result is an intriguing look at art detection and the Boston criminal underworld. The methods art detectives use to recover works are often unorthodox. Detectives have to maintain a network of surly underworld contacts.

This book was tremendously interesting. It is also somewhat depressing. It's frightening just how many works of art are stolen, and how poorly protected most museums are. Boser points out that many of us would like to believe that when artworks are stolen they are secreted away to private collections. In fact, that is almost never the case. Stolen art most frequently becomes currency in the criminal world, providing collateral for all sorts of unsavory underworld activities. Drugs, weapons, the mafia: stolen art funds all of them. Thieves are rarely punished because the most important objective for the art detective is to get priceless works back into museums.

Boser does not ever recover any of the stolen works, but his journey is fascinating. I learned a great deal about art theft and recovery, and how the criminal world uses priceless works of art. Anyone with an interest in art or crime would enjoy this book.

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft (Smithsonian, 2009) ISBN: 0061451835

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