Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

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by Anthony M. Amore, Tom Mashberg

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A spellbinding journey into the high-stakes world of art theft

Today, art theft is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises in the world, exceeding $6 billion in losses to galleries and art collectors annually. And the masterpieces of Rembrandt van Rijn are some of the most frequently targeted.
In Stealing Rembrandts, art security expert

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A spellbinding journey into the high-stakes world of art theft

Today, art theft is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises in the world, exceeding $6 billion in losses to galleries and art collectors annually. And the masterpieces of Rembrandt van Rijn are some of the most frequently targeted.
In Stealing Rembrandts, art security expert Anthony M. Amore and award-winning investigative reporter Tom Mashberg reveal the actors behind the major Rembrandt heists in the last century. Through thefts around the world - from Stockholm to Boston, Worcester to Ohio - the authors track daring entries and escapes from the world's most renowned museums. There are robbers who coolly walk off with multimillion dollar paintings; self-styled art experts who fall in love with the Dutch master and desire to own his art at all costs; and international criminal masterminds who don't hesitate to resort to violence. They also show how museums are thwarted in their ability to pursue the thieves - even going so far as to conduct investigations on their own, far away from the maddening crowd of police intervention, sparing no expense to save the priceless masterpieces.
Stealing Rembrandts is an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind look at the black market of art theft, and how it compromises some of the greatest treasures the world has ever known.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Schoppa
Together [Amore and Mashberg] tell a compelling story.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Art history meets C.S.I. in this account of the theft of works by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the most prolific master painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Amore and Mashberg narrate heists ranging from noir to farce, weaving in details about the historical relevance of each work and background on the artist. Some thieves prove more cunning than others, but the star is Myles Connor, the mastermind behind a daring lift from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that is reminiscent of a Hollywood movie. Even on paper, Connor comes off so beguiling and debonair that his chapter outshines the occasionally lackluster companion pieces. However, these cases provide insight into the psychology and even the philosophy of art thieves. They also provoke questions about the purpose of such thefts given that it is nearly impossible to re-sell world famous pieces of art. Overall, the authors convey the importance of Rembrandt's works as historical and cultural touchstones and argue that art theft is a "crime against all of us." Amore himself is plagued by the theft of three Rembrandts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he serves as head of security. That mystery, for now, remains unsolved. Photos. (July)
The Wall Street Journal

Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg have a textured feel for Rembrandt's work.
The Christian Science Monitor

A quick and entertaining read.

This is a terrific book, and excellently researched.
Associated Press Staff

A detailed look at numerous robberies targeting works by the great Dutch master over the past century. Combining impressive shoe-leather reporting skills with solid art-world knowledge, this fascinating book debunks many myths about museum heists while providing vivid profiles of the criminals and their motives . . . As Amore and Mashberg show, stealing a Rembrandt seldom pays off for the thieves but makes the world at large infinitely poorer. With hard facts and a cleareyed perspective, this book sets the record straight.
New York Times bestselling author of Priceless: Robert K. Wittman

A fast-paced and engrossing exposé of the shady underbelly of the art world.
bestselling author of Hitman and The Brothers Bulg Howie Carr

You don't have to appreciate art -- just entertaining true-crime stories -- to enjoy 'Stealing Rembrandts.' In this fast-moving account of some of the most daring art heists ever, art security expert Anthony Amore introduces a colorful real-life cast of sticky-fingered art-lovers you won't soon forget, especially the next time you find yourself in a museum checking out an exhibit of Old Masters, or new.
Casey Sherman

Authors Amore & Mashberg are the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of the art world. True masters in their own right, they provide an unvarnished look at some of history's most notorious art heists, separating fact from popular fiction and defeating the notion that art theft is a victimless crime. On the contrary, Stealing Rembrandts is proof that plundering art for profit is more dangerous than we could ever have imagined.
Rebecca Dreyfus

People often ask me, 'Why would anyone steal a high-profile piece of art? What could they do with it?' If you want answers read Stealing Rembrandts. This finely crafted chronicle of a century of Rembrandt thefts gives the reader rare and intimate access to the strange milieu of the art heist.
author of Lost in Shangri-La Mitchell Zuckoff

Stealing Rembrandts offers a rare inside look into a world few of us know beyond headlines and Hollywood. By weaving together Rembrandt's own story with exclusive interviews and insights into the men who have stolen his masterpieces, authors Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg do a masterful job of connecting the artist and his thieves across the centuries. Along the way, they explode myths and reveal the true nature of the criminals and their crimes. Most of us can't hope to hang a Rembrandt on our walls, but the good news is that we can eagerly add this book to our collections.
publisher of ARTnews Milton Esterow

Stealing Rembrandts is thoroughly researched and filled with memorable characters. It is a fascinating and entertaining read.
The Washington Post

[A] gripping narrative.
The Boston Globe

[The authors] interview some of today's highest-profile art thieves . . . The most absorbing part of the entire book is the verbatim testimony from Myles J. Connor about how he cased museums, identified security weaknesses, planned his operations, implemented them, and sought to profit from the art he stole.
The Seattle Times

The book alternates between Rembrandt as a prime target of thieves and a broader examination of art thefts throughout the United States and the rest of the world. Amore and Mashberg smash myth after myth.
Library Journal
From How To Steal a Million to The Thomas Crown Affair, film audiences have been fascinated by the romance of brilliant art heists. But the reality is somewhat different. Amore was hired as security director by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston 15 years after several Rembrandts had been stolen from it and immediately set about to become an expert on art thefts and on Rembrandt, whose works are stolen at an astonishingly high rate. In this book, he and journalist Mashberg generously share their research, tracing a number of Rembrandt heists, both elegant and slapdash, and revealing how the thieves were captured and the works recovered (or not). Interviews with criminals and insights from dedicated law-enforcement personnel draw the reader into this rarified world. In addition, the authors provide history on Rembrandt and his world and on the stolen works themselves. VERDICT Art history buffs and fans of the classic caper alike will enjoy this look at the great artist and those who would possess him.—Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH
Kirkus Reviews

A museum security director and a journalist combine to educate the masses about the realities of art theft, with an emphasis on the paintings of Rembrandt.

Amore is employed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which has been victimized by thieves pulling off high-profile heists. Mashberg is a Boston Herald reporter who immersed himself in the Gardner thefts, hoping to solve the most notorious of those, which occurred in 1990. The authors smash myth after myth, many of them the result of unrealistic movies of the James Bond variety. For instance, they demonstrate that a high percentage of art thieves—whether stealing from museums or private homes—are not sophisticated about technology or about the paintings themselves. In fact, many are common house burglars who seek new criminal challenges and who believe, often mistakenly, that stealing works of art assessed at high prices will lead to riches. They frequently fail to reckon with the reality that art masterpieces are difficult to fence because they stick out in underground markets. The bulk of the text consists of case studies from private residential collections and from public galleries in Stockholm, Cincinnati, Boston and Worcester, Mass.The studies sometimes feel like filler in an already slim book, partly because the heists occurred so many decades ago. The narrative is generally stronger when the authors convey insights from thieves who discuss their mindsets, and when the text focuses on why educated museum staff members can be duped so easily. The background about Rembrandt, why his art has become so sought-after and how thieves have disposed of his masterpieces constitutes a book within the book, backed by original research.

An interesting mish-mash of everything related to the thievery of valuable art.

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Stealing Rembrandts

The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

By Anthony M. Amore, Tom Mashberg

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-33742-8


There Is No "Dr. No"

Few crimes appear as far beyond the reach of the average person as an art heist. It is little wonder, then, that the most enduring myth attached to the thefts of famous paintings centers on what we call the "Dr. No Fallacy." This is the notion that a sinister and elusive tycoon has masterminded and commissioned a museum robbery; has employed professional, technologically brilliant thieves to carry out the crime; and has provided his specialists with a strict "shopping list" based on his refined sensibilities. The art ends up in the mystery mogul's private lair, appreciated only by him.

Simple research shows that the Dr. No myth began with an iconic moment in the 1962 James Bond film of that name. Bond (played by Sean Connery) is shown with Dr. Julius No (portrayed by Joseph Wiseman) strolling past Francisco Goya's stolen Duke of Wellington (c. 1812–1814) portrait while deep inside No's hidden headquarters. Bond does a double-take as he passes what he instantly recognizes to be the purloined painting and mutters, "So that's where it went." Goya's portrait of the general who vanquished Napoleon Bonaparte (himself an art plunderer of note) at Waterloo in 1815 had been stolen from London's National Gallery a few months before filming began. Its late inclusion as a gag line in the film, by script assistant Johanna Harwood, (who received a screenplay credit for Dr. No), has helped propagate an enduring misconception about just who commits art theft. This mythical uber-rich "connoisseur thief" has cropped up in movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Entrapment (1999; Sean Connery is himself the "Dr. No"-like figure in this film), Hudson Hawk (1991), and the forgettable Art Heist (2004). He has been the focus of endless speculation and grudging admiration, and even psychoanalyzed as a "wealthy fetishist" who seeks out stolen art "that only he can contemplate and appreciate." If only we could meet him.

The reality is far more grimy and far less romantic. By and large, our research shows, major art theft is committed by common criminals associated with local crime rings. They are not lone-wolf specialists nor "made" men in the Mafia, Yakuza, or a similarly insidious criminal organization. Rather, they are part of what law enforcement calls "disorganized crime." They are most often petty offenders involved in all sorts of thievery, with only tenuous connections to criminal syndicates. Generally they are burglars and break-in artists whose résumés might feature armored-car robberies, small-time bank jobs, home invasions, and drug dealing. They bear no resemblance to Hollywood actors like Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery, and they skulk about in every city around the globe. And since there are museums or important art collections in any good-sized city, the fact that art is so often the target of their banditry should come as no surprise. Any time high-value items, uneven security, public access, and opportunistic criminals are thrown together, theft ensues.

Still, when art is stolen, there is an irresistible tendency to insert high intrigue into the drama. Goya's Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery at the height of the Cold War, prompting the Soviet newspaper Izvestia to drum up a "capitalistic plot." The Russian government urged Scotland Yard's investigators to look into the private collections of North and South American millionaires. They couldn't have been more off the mark. The painting was stolen by a pudgy, penny-pinching English national, Kempton Bunton, who was upset with the British government's decision to spend £140,000 (about $3.4 million in 2011 dollars) on the Goya while he was charged a licensing fee to watch BBC television. Acting on security information that he teased out of unwitting gallery guards, Bunton slipped into the museum by climbing through a loosened bathroom window at an hour when intrusion-detection alarms were turned off. He carried his prize out the same loo window. The painting's 1965 recovery was as un- Hollywood as the crime itself: Unable to force the government to eliminate the television licensing fee, Bunton simply gave Wellington back, leaving it at the luggage office at Birmingham New Street Station in London. Adding to his unexciting profile as an international man of mystery, Bunton turned himself in to the authorities even though investigators had discounted him as a suspect, figuring that at 61 he was too old to accomplish the deed. In a cheeky letter to police before his surrender, Bunton referred grimly to the Goya as "three-pennyworth of old Spanish firewood," giving British newspapers some incendiary headline material. Yet he could barely get himself arrested because the London police had bought so heavily into the concept of a globetrotting art felon with cultured tastes.

Overblown notions about art heists predate the days of James Bond and similar forms of popular culture. History is filled with mistaken theories that posit grandiose or nefarious plots to purloin great works. Two examples from the early twentieth century stand out. On July 1, 1911, in what was seen as a test of the Anglo-French alliance of the day, Germany sent a gunboat to the port of Agadir in Morocco, North Africa. This move became the catalyst for what was dubbed the "Second Moroccan Crisis," a French colonial brushfire. Seven weeks later, with the flare-up still burning through the diplomatic corridors of Europe, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa disappeared from the walls of the Louvre in Paris.

Intricate theories abounded over who had taken the world's best-known painting. A German journalist declared the loss not a theft but a contrivance by the French government to divert attention from the imperialist troubles in Morocco. The truth was far more mundane: The Mona Lisa had been lifted by a housepainter, Vincenzo Peruggia, who had worked as a contractor at the Louvre installing glass over paintings. His motive? To return the masterpiece to his—and Da Vinci's—home country of Italy.

Another illustration of the heedless rush to point to art theft as a major conspiratorial act comes from the United States. In 1955, authorities at the Brooklyn Museum in New York discovered that eight rare silver figurines had been stolen. Puzzled by how and why they were taken, police told the public that the theft was "a perfect crime" committed by cunning international pros. Imagine the embarrassment when the NYPD and museum officials learned that the figurines had fallen prey to two 14-year- old boys with the bright idea of pocketing some unusual-looking toys. Cases like this explain why many in the security business embrace the axiom, "The first version of the story you hear is always wrong."

Works by Rembrandt have not been spared such knee-jerk hype. In April 1938, British police flooded ports and airfields after a Rembrandt and four other treasures were stolen from a castle in Kent. The Rembrandt had been bought from Russia's State Hermitage Museum by Sir Edmund Davis during Stalin's rule, and Davis had recently declined to lend it to the Dutch government. The heated theories of international machinations and melodrama were doused five weeks later, when some of the art turned up in the hands of a run-of-the-mill London fence. That early experience hardly taught the Brits a lesson. At the start of 2000, when Cézanne's Auvers-sur-Oise (1880) was robbed from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, a cry went up in the British press that it had been "stolen to order" by a baronial villain eager to enjoy the $10 million painting in selfish isolation. It is, alas, still missing. In April 2010, a lively episode of The Simpsons was spun from the notion that the evil Mr. Burns was in misanthropic possession of two stolen Rembrandts, including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Our research highlights how many of these cherished theories, concocted legends, and amusing myths have been debunked.


High-value art theft is nearly as old as art itself. Early civilizations plundered enemy treasures with imperious disregard for cultural worth, while individual thieves always found ways to pilfer the finer heirlooms of their neighbors or societies. In antiquity, the Babylonians ransacked King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and took away the Ark of the Covenant. Consider it a very early masterpiece heist. Greece's greatest sculptures, paintings, and tapestries arrived in Rome as booty centuries before the birth of Jesus—and the great orator Cicero lamented this pillaging in his orations at the time. In 1934, the destructive theft of two fifteenth-century panels from Jan van Eyck's legendary Altarpiece at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, showed how a single determined criminal could wreak his own sort of cultural and religious havoc. Some 460 years before the Ghent robbery, Polish pirates in the Mediterranean stole the triptych Last Judgment, by Hans Memling, as it was being shipped from Bruges, Belgium, to Florence's Medici Chapel. It has resided in Gdansk, Poland, ever since. Pirates of a different sort infiltrated the Gardner Museum in 1990 and made off with 13 artworks that, a generation later, remain a sort of buried treasure for modern times.

History's roster is as endless as it is strange. The Nazis uprooted countless masterpieces from France, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere during World War II, including Rembrandts. They crated them up and sent them by rail to Berlin, for Hitler and Göring to swap and drool over. These depravities are known collectively as "the Rape of Europa." In 1994, Lynn H. Nicholas wrote The Rape of Europa, which won the National Book Critics Award and later became the basis for the 2006 documentary, of the same name, that was released to great acclaim. For a taut Hollywood war movie on the topic, see The Train (1964), starring Burt Lancaster.) Some 1,900 years before the Third Reich, the forces of Emperor Titus Flavius sacked the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and organized the orderly removal of its treasures for a triumphal procession through Rome (the scene is immortalized in stone on a Roman arch viewable to this day). And art theft cannot be discussed without reference to the innumerable instances in which one nation's antiquities have become another nation's curios and museum pieces. The Elgin Marbles—prized sculptures from ancient Greece—were brazenly shipped off to England in the early 1800s by Ambassador Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin. They remain in the British Museum, but the Greeks want them back. In 2006, tarred with the brush of cultural imperialism, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return dozens of ancient marbles, bronzes, frescoes, and vases to Greece and Italy. Egyptians, Peruvians, and Native Americans, among others, today rightly resent and continue to challenge the imperialistic raidings of their vaults and tombs for all manner of glittering artifacts. Clearly, art theft is as much a spoil of war, conquest, or colonialism as it is an act of grand larceny or petty crime. Some thieving nations have treated stolen art with reverence and others have melted it down for the gold. The same holds true for individual criminals. Some will care for a heisted Rembrandt with a peculiar form of veneration. Others will cut it from a frame, roll it in a tube, and toss it in a car trunk.

Effectively, art theft can never be stopped. It is too enticing, too easy, and too potentially lucrative. Fine arts, jewels, and antiques always appreciate in value. Witness the sale in May 2010 of Pablo Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which fetched $106.5 million at Christie's New York auction house, the most money ever paid for a painting. The purchase price was more than $25 million above Christie's estimate—this despite a severe recession. Three months earlier, a sculpture by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man I, sold for £65 million ($103.7 million) at Sotheby's auction house, making it the record-holder for asculpture. Sotheby's had estimated the Giacometti's worth at £12–£18 million, making Man quite a piece of investment property.

It is not very surprising, then, that just ten days after the Picasso sale, more than $100 million in paintings by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Amedeo Modigliani were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art through the embarrassingly simple expediencies of a smashed window and a faulty security system. (In this case, the frames also were left behind.) Just a day later, a private collector in the south of France was beaten and hogtied while his lone Picasso was taken. Criminologists classify such crimes as essentially copycat cases arising from the media attention surrounding the initial robbery. They help demonstrate that art capers are utterly commonplace—so much so that it is clear even to minor-league criminals that they do not require a sophisticated crime ring or a wealthy backer to pull off.

Why is art theft worthy of concern? The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking in stolen art and antiquities are crimes that surpass $6 billion a year in value. It is widely recognized that trafficking in illicit art ranks with drugs, weapons, and money laundering in its global pervasiveness. The international Art Loss Register, which maintains an enormous private database of artistic loot, records 170,000 missing pieces around the world. Along with Rembrandt and Picasso, the list includes names like Cézanne, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rubens, and Titian. Large-scale art theft tends to become international news. This happened after the Baghdad Museum was looted in March and April 2003, at the onset of the Iraq War, and when The Scream was stolen in Norway in 1994 (another version of the Edvard Munch painting was stolen in 2004). But it's rarely the loss of the irreplaceable pieces that is lamented or treated as highly newsworthy. Rather, it is the dollar figure attributed to the spoils that grabs the headlines and the popular imagination.

Consider again the 2010 theft from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Americans awoke that day to the following bulletin from the Paris bureau of the Associated Press: "Lone Thief Steals $600 Million in Art From Paris Museum." The story generated a great deal of coverage in the week after the heist, even though most people would be hard-pressed to conjure up a mental image of Picasso's The Pigeon with the Peas, or Matisse's Pastoral, both of which went missing. When did the story finally calm down? After officials in Paris announced that the estimated value was in fact closer to $100 million. The initial reports were off by a mere half-billion dollars. But in the world of art-heist coverage, being wrong by that immense amount is considered "in the ballpark." It's art, after all—a commodity few understand or control. Assigning a dollar value to art is by nature an act of conjecture. In an age when instantly grabbing the "eyeballs" of the public is the only way for the news media to survive, there are few better ploys for drawing rapid attention than tossing about figures like $100 million or "a half- billion."

Let us set aside for now the truism that no thief could ever hope to gain that kind of money from the ransom or resale of stolen art. (In the coming chapters we will show what forms of tribute do, in fact, change hands when fabled paintings are recovered.) It is the freedom to attach almost any sum to the value of an art heist that makes the act a unique crime in the public consciousness. Drug seizures also prompt huge dollar estimates as law enforcement officials strive to give the goods a "street value." But a street value for ounces of pot and kilograms of heroin does exist. Art has no real street value. And how many onlookers can identify or empathize with the holders of high art and their missing treasures or lost fortunes? Few indeed.

To illustrate the point, ask yourself: How many people have heard of Edgar Degas's Cortège Aux Environs de Florence? It's a good bet few could pick it out of a lineup or recognize it on someone's wall. Yet it is a piece by a famed Impressionist stolen in the biggest property crime of all time—the Gardner Museum heist. As museum officials note, any piece lost from the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection leaves a hole in the "collective piece of art" that is the museum. Thus, its removal undermines a generous legacy meant to be shared with any individual who cares to visit the institution. It also robs the public of the particular beauty and resonance of the lost item. And in many cases it robs posterity of a vital glimpse into the human past. Today, we take for granted the terabytes of images that depict how we live from every angle. But the ability to record historical and personal scenes on a mass scale is less than two centuries old. Art and artifacts predating this era is all we have to help us visualize how our ancestors lived and saw the world. When that cultural heritage is depleted even by one work, all suffer the loss. Although many may feel otherwise, art theft is never a victimless crime.


Excerpted from Stealing Rembrandts by Anthony M. Amore, Tom Mashberg. Copyright © 2011 Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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