Art, Contracts

On Remand: Stolen Art Disappears Into The Starry Night And A Lawyer Goes To Prison

(c) Image by Juri H. Chinchilla.

At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day festivities wound down in Boston, two men dressed as police officers rang the buzzer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Eighty-one minutes later, they vanished, taking eleven paintings and two artifacts with them. None of the stolen works — worth at least $500 million today — has ever been recovered. This week, On Remand looks back at the Gardner heist and another set of stolen paintings that found their way back the rightful owner — landing an attorney in prison in the process….

The Gardner heist began when two men claiming to be police officers investigating a disturbance in the courtyard were admitted to the museum without question by the on-duty security guard. The imposter policemen then tricked the guard into stepping away from his alarm button and summoning the other on-duty guard. After taping the guards’ hands, feet, and heads (leaving holes to breathe), the burglars handcuffed the guards to pipes in the museum’s basement. With the guards disabled, the burglars disconnected the museum’s video cameras. No one would discover what happened next until 8 a.m., when the morning shift of employees arrived.

That morning, Gardner staff and police discovered what remains the largest property crime in U.S. history. In the Dutch room, a Rembrandt self-portrait, which the thieves had unsuccessfully tried to pry from its frame, laid discarded on the floor. Two frames — the former homes of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black — hung haphazardly without their contents, which had been cut out. A Vermeer and a Govart Flinck painting were missing. Elsewhere in the museum, five Degas drawings, a Manet, a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag, and a Chinese vase were also gone.

The burglary was beyond perplexing. The thieves operated with a strange mix of professionalism and amateurism. Their method of entry, treatment of the guards, and disabling of the museum’s security cameras suggested they were professionals. Yet, only amateurs would risk spending nearly an hour and a half in the museum (and, according to motion trackers still active throughout the burglary, spend only half that time stealing art). The thieves’ eclectic mix of stolen artwork — Dutch, Asian, and Napoleonic — appeared to have no connection, and they vastly devalued the two Rembrandts by cutting them out of the frames. The thieves also left the museum’s most valuable painting, Titian’s Europa, hanging on the wall.

The crime remains unsolved, the theories as perplexing as the heist itself. Those theories include the involvement of the Irish Republican Army or possibly Whitey Bulger, the Boston mob boss and FBI informant. Another theory posits that New England art thief, Myles Connor, asked an associate to make the steal.

Contrary to the Gardner heist, and Hollywood’s treatment of other art heists, most stolen art is taken without drama: museum employees simply walk off with artwork in storage or opportunists snag small pieces from the homes of collectors. Art thieves typically are not sophisticated criminals in bowler hats. Such was the case with a 1978 break-in in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. After Michael Bakwin left town for the Memorial Day weekend in 1978, his house was broken into and seven paintings were stolen, including a valuable Cézanne. The investigation quickly focused on David Colvin, a small-time career criminal who was already in trouble with the law on an unrelated firearms charge.

The day before his hearing in the firearms case, Colvin arrived at his lawyer’s office with a bag containing the paintings stolen from the Bakwin home. According to his attorney, Robert M. Mardirosian:

He was going to bring them to Florida to fence them, but I told him that if he ever got caught with them with the other case hanging over his head, he’d be in real trouble…. So he left them upstairs in my attic in a big plastic bag.

In February 1979, Colvin was shot and killed over a $1,500 poker debt, stalling the investigation into Bakwin’s stolen paintings. A few months later, though, while cleaning the attic, Mardirosian rediscovered the paintings. He didn’t contact the authorities. He didn’t call Bakwin. Instead, he researched the best way to make a profit….

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