Art Heist

By: pbcmedia

Feb 09 2009

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Category: Art, BEHIND THE WHEEL SERIES, Museums


Focal Length:34mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:Canon EOS 5D

Early in the morning of March 18th, 1990, thieves heisted  paintings and other art objects from the splendid Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston: among them three Rembrandts,  a Vermeer, and numerous Degas sketches.  The museum is a spectacularly beautiful residence based on a 15th century Venetian palace  with an inner courtyard that blooms through all seasons.  It contains over 2500 pieces of fine and decorative art.

(You can read the FBI report here)

It is still an open case with the FBI.  Although I don’t know where the paintings are I feel sure I know how the burglars managed to walk in, cut  priceless masterpieces from their ornate frames and other significant objects of art and walk out with no one knowing until the next morning.  The FBI report suggests the guards were found duct taped and bound in the basement.

Here’s my theory.

The guards, if they were like the ones I encountered yesterday (and truth be told in earlier visits), asked to be bound and gagged and left in the basement just before the burglars left with the loot.

I asked one about where I might find the name of the painting in the chapel.  He looked at me as if I’d opened the door to the shower as he was lathering up.

Attitude?  Oh, yeah.  But, what also became clear as he harrumphed and contorted his scowly already unpleasant face to reluctantly walk toward the chapel,  (I wasn’t moving till he did), he didn’t know one thing about the painting, not its name and, by his question, “Which one?”  Which one, pal?  There’s only one where I am pointing.

My sister in law asked another guard in another hallway if Mrs. Gardner had ever resided in this residence.  Her answer was “No, it was only for galleries.”  She lived on the fourth floor which is not open to the public.  My guess is the guy didn’t even know there was a fourth floor.

In another large room adjacent to the chapel, I asked another guard what this room had been used for apart from displaying the art work.   The look of cluelessness was breathtaking.  And, indifference.  “i wouldn’t know,” was her answer as she turned her head away from me, as if there was someone else standing next to her.  There wasn’t.

Houston, we have a problem.  Ok.  These are probably not well paying jobs.  Ok, too, that they are tired of listening to repetitive questions;  ok, even, that they are paid to guard the art not explain it, but museums world wide have guards that are asked to guard and yet interact with patrons and their questions, “Where’s the restroom?” on a regular basis.  In my experience, most have managed to be civil.  With few exceptions (there was one very helpful woman in the room where two of the masterpieces were stolen) they have been civil.  This group was singularly memorable for their lack of it.

On that night in March in 1990, I know how the burglars did it.  They broke in, alright, and met hostility to be sure, but, and most importantly for burglars, they were also greeted with indifference.

A Vermeer?  Oh, big whoop.

Rembrandt?  Who’s he?

Degas?  Never seen it before.


Door closes behind the burglars as they walked slowly out into Boston’s streets still strewn with litter from The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

©Pat Coakley 2009


11 comments on “Art Heist”

  1. Perhaps . . . they’ve been trained to be as impersonal as possible, so as not to be distracted from their very important duty of protecting the paintings. See, all it takes is one chatty patron to get them talking, and not paying any attention whatsoever, for someone else, the perp in cahoots with the chatter, to do his dastardly deed and defile the artwork.

    Or, perhaps they are just naturally crabby and clueless . . .

  2. I thought of that, too. But, there’s a difference between people who are trained to be clueless and those who come by it naturally. There are signs all over the museum and courtyard, “Do Not Take Photographs”. If this is deliberate they should have signs plastered everywhere saying “DO NOT SPEAK TO GUARDS”.

  3. Pat, I love this post. It’s all too frequent that we encounter these people entrusted with precious works of art and, although they should be proud of what they have the privilege of working with, the truth is that they’re probably more concerned about what the latest football score is. I blame education, where art and appreciation of things fine, historic and beautiful is mostly taught in elective classes which are often dismissed in favour of more ‘practical’ coursework. Then again, at some of the museums in London, we have the opposite problem – guards who take their job a bit too seriously. It can make you scared to move.

  4. it doesn’t surprise me (too much anyway) anymore, the lack of connection, you’re right, we r used to dismissing what is right in front of us and focusing on some other imagined scenario like the game scores or whatever. its like a pervasive walking slumber syndrome. it’s too big, its everywhere, its contagious and its symptoms reinforced by the snowball effect, which seems even more ironic right now in winter, especially since we’ve had so much snow this season. odd how people will latch onto certain ideas (like everyone who has to go out of doors will notice, recognize and feel the qualities of the weather, at the very least in passing)
    people will be able to glance at their watch and accurately say what time it is, there are certain ‘givens’ to which a universal acknowledgment will occur, and art used to be one of them. i remember the caves at Lascaux whenever i think about art and its place in our world.

  5. On the other hand, I’ve been a few museums and galleries (including one in Puerto Rico recently) where a few surly uniformed guards were supplemented by gallery hosts – young artists or art student types with great interest in what the were guarding. They could answer questions, and even volunteered information on the gallery contents as we entered. Refreshing, and probably a great part time job for many of them. With imagination and forethought to match people to their jobs, it can be done right.

    By the way, I love the blue lights on the police car to illustrate your story. I can hear the siren.

  6. Hi Pat, its me again :) This post is such a sorry example of the management of that museum. I’m guessing the guards have not been trained to provide that information and obviously have no initiative to pursue it on their own. I guess that’s where the cliche “It’s not my job, man” comes from. Poor pay, poor management, and I hate to say it but poor employees…anyway, love your photos, your talent just soars, you have an ardent fan here. I love the vantage point you took, like a burglar hiding behind the rocks.

  7. I’ve actually had a different experience at the National Gallery in Washington. On school trips with children, the guards were so friendly and helpful and informative. I think that recruiting the right people is important. My husband, who used to work at the Gallery, said that the guard jobs at the Gallery were really well paid, with great pensions and government benefits.

  8. Epic, Actually my experience with museum guards is much more pleasant than in this particular one. It stands out really for that reason. I had just come from the Museum of Fine Arts which is about two blocks away and I’ve had many a nice encounter there with the security staff.

    Tipota, yes there are some parallels to our general experiences in your aptly termed pervasive walking slumber syndrome!

    Psychscribe: thanks for coming back and I’m glad your comment didn’t get wiped out like last time! I’m just glad the police car wasn’t after me!

    Don, I think the staff around art can really make a
    difference in the experience of an exhibit or gallery. Your experience sounds like an optimum one!

    Al, I didn’t know that about the quality of the gallery jobs at the National Gallery of Art, but I agree…I’ve had nice experiences there. Really, when I think about it, this museum I wrote about is the only one I can think of in my long history that has provided this type of experience. Recruiting the right people is clearly lacking in this institution since it’s not the first time I’ve run up against it.

  9. Now you didn’t really expect, or even want, someone with a modicum of vivacity and charm to be wasting their lives away standing around in an art gallery did you?

    I once had an experience here in Oz where I asked two guys collecting tickets at a railway station if I could use the toilet on the platform downstairs. They said I couldn’t unless I had a ticket. I said to them I wasn’t interested in getting a free train ride and offered my wallet as a hostage. They still said no. I was bursting so I begged. They still said no. In my frustrated dire need and exasperation, I screamed at them, “NO WONDER YOU COLLECT TICKETS FOR A LIVING, YOU’RE FIT FOR NOTHING ELSE!”

    At the opposite end of the scale is the guy who operates the elevator at Hoover Dam. He was a joyous live-wire who used his 30 seconds of exposure to his captive audience extremely well and to me it seemed a shame his crowd was so small.

  10. Razz, I have never thought of guards at museums as wasting their lives. Honest. Usually, I see them as students working their way through school or when they are older I usually have just thought of them as regular working people who are surrounded by art, sometimes quite glorious examples of art, all day long. I look at them actually with a bit of wonder, really. Have always wondered what affect being around this work might have, if any, on their wider lives. Now your railway guys? They are wasting their life not because of their job, but because of their attitude. And, that I guess applies to whatever job, exalted or not, that we have.

    Exhibit A: your Hoover Dam man. Memorable for one reason alone. His attitude. Not his job.

    Oh, I could go on and on about this!

  11. I guess what I meant to say is that being a security guard is an unskilled and low paid job that would be a waste of a bright person’s time. Sure, being surrounded by art is nice but when you look at it, many of those security guards may be doing that job because it’s probably the only work they can get, rather working there for their love of art. Naturally there would be some people who get jobs in galleries because they love art.

    Now of course the smart person will adopt the “be here now” attitude and wring the most out of their time where ever they are. Then again, people who are smart enough to realise that life is short and should be wholeheartedly engaged with, would possibly be employed in an occupation that requires greater skill.

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