Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

by Anthony M. Amore, Tom Mashberg


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Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists by Anthony M. Amore, Tom Mashberg

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230339903
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/03/2012
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 501,193
Product dimensions: 6.22(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Anthony M. Amore is the head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and contributes to the Boston Herald and The Huffington Post. He serves as trustee of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art and lectures widely on art crime.

Tom Mashberg is an award-winning investigative reporter and the former Sunday editor for the Boston Herald. During his 30-year career he has reported for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, as well as writing for Vanity Fair and many other publications. He was called "the quintessential newspaperman" by FOX-TV's America's Most Wanted.

Read an Excerpt

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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Table of Contents

Authors' Forewords ix

Introduction: Why Rembrandt? 1

Chapter 1 There Is No "Dr. No" 7

Chapter 2 Smeared with Blood: The 1972 Worcester Heist 27

Chapter 3 The Takeaway Rembrandt 53

Chapter 4 Snafu in Cincinnati: 1973 69

Chapter 5 Wolves at the Door: Heists from Homes 93

Chapter 6 Devil's Bargain: The MFA Heist 117

Chapter 7 2000: The Stockholm Blitz 143

Chapter 8 The Rembrandt that Wasn't l67

Chapter 9 Rembrandt's Stolen Etchings 185

Epilogue: Our Debt to Rembrandt 199

Target Rembrandt: A List of Known and Reported Thefts 205

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 213

Selected Bibliography 227

Index 231

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Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
Anthony M Amore and Tom Mashberg have compiled a history of art theft that is as entertaining as it is astonishing. Amore is the security director for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston - the location where 13 art works including two Rembrandt paintings and an etching caused an uproar in 1990: Mashberg is the investigative reporter and Sunday editor of the Boston Herald. These two gentlemen have as much intelligent information about the psychology and perpetration of art heists as anyone writing today and much of that information is form first hand experience. The title, STEALING REMBRANDTS, suggests that the information shared will be about he works of the great artist alone, but the book is actually a dissection of the history of art heists throughout the world. It is well documented and full of theory and fact that provides some of the more entertaining reading in art books available today. The In many ways this is a crime thriller rather than a documentation of thefts, but that is what makes the book not only informative but also an exciting read. The complexities and the faux pas of art theft are mind-boggling, and Amore and Mashberg play it to the hilt! Grady Harp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exceptional read.
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