Crime Museum Spotlights Art Heists

Posted March 26, 2010 at 4:47pm

In movies like “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Hollywood has popularized the thrilling stories behind the theft of masterpieces and their eventual return to a museum’s walls.

The 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where paintings and drawings worth more than $300 million were looted, has all the makings of a mega-movie hit. But it’s the case’s status as an unsolved crime that landed it as a featured part of a temporary exhibit at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment.

On display until April 26, the exhibit, “The Dark Arts: Thieves, Forgers and Tomb Raiders,” draws attention to this largely unnoticed category of crime that accounts for $6 billion in lost works of art a year.

The idea to showcase the Gardner Museum theft in the exhibit came out of the museum’s need to feature a new unsolved crime as part of its “cold case” exhibit, according to Janine Vaccarello, chief operating officer of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment.

“It was perfect timing to put it up,” Vaccarello said, noting the recent 20th anniversary of the heist earlier this month.

The crime and punishment museum collaborated with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to put on the exhibit. ARCA Director Colette Marvin curated the exhibit.

“We’re trying to get the word out and increase art crime awareness,” Marvin said of the reason that the association decided to collaborate with the museum on the exhibit.

Just five years in existence, ARCA is trying to expand its Washington, D.C., presence. The association is based both in Italy and Washington. ARCA is working with policing agencies to raise the profile of art crime.

The Gardner Museum is continuing its search to recover a Vermeer painting, three Rembrandts and a Manet, among others, that account for the largest single property theft in American history.

The exhibit details how two men masquerading as Boston police officers tied up the museum’s two security officers before making off with the artwork. Several possible theories on who was behind the theft have surfaced, including potential connections to the Irish Republican Army and the Boston mob.

But Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum, said they are not looking to prosecute the theft and would just like to see the return of the art. The statute of limitations has long since passed.

At the same time, Amore said, “the investigation is as vigorous and aggressive as it has been.”

The museum continues to offer a $5 million reward for any tips that lead to the recovery of the art and has tried to draw attention to it, recently advertising the reward on two interstate highway billboards.

In addition to the Gardner Museum heist, the exhibit also displays Native American pottery shards recovered from a number of lootings as well as forgeries meant to masquerade as works by Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and others.