The Summer Must Read Stealing Rembrandts


Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

Although movies makes stealing art look sophisticated, Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg prove time and again that art thievery generally involves low brow crooks looking to make a quick buck. They aren’t interested in the art, it’s just that art museums, unlike a bank, are not secure and therefore make stealing a Rembrandt much easier than stealing a million dollars. That makes it a double crime because the thieves have so little understanding of the masterpiece they are making off with that they are willing to cut it from its frame, roll it up and stash it under beds and behind sofas. Not a good way to deal with four and five hundred year old masterpieces! And why Rembrandts? Why not Titian or Fra Angelico? It is simply that most people are familiar with the name Rembrandt as a fine artist. But any semi intelligent person would realize the difficulty of reselling such obvious well known works of art. The pieces are generally recovered very quickly and if not a generation will go by before they are recovered. I was intrigued to read of the problem with etchings. It has never occurred to me but it makes sense, because an etching can be reprinted over and over again, a new print of a Rembrandt etching can easily be inserted into a collection to replace a stolen one. The difference can sometimes be seen easily but not necessarily. The four hundred year old hand-made paper is usually the give away. I appreciated these authors’ interesting details about the art itself, its history and its importance along with the art crime.  I had to google Portrait of a Young Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak. A Boston art dealer, Robert C. Vose, visited a monastery in Hollywood Hills to view and appraise their collection. He found most to be fakes with the exception of Rembrandts’ Young Girl Wearing a Gold Trimmed Cloak. He bought it for $100,000 and sold it quickly for $125,000. It was then loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts and was stolen in 1975. The account that made me groan aloud were the 239 items, works of art by Rembrandt, Watteau, Boucher and Peter Brueghel, Greek pottery, medieval crossbow and a Roman bugle. Stéphane Breitwieser was finally caught in 2001 whereupon his mother began cutting and destroying both art and frame, then put the canvas in the garbage disposal, she threw vases, jewelry, statuettes into a canal. By the time police raided the house there was virtually not one thing left! Nothing! 1.5 billion dollars worth of amazing art and relics was gone forever. Breitwieser spent two years in jail. And then there is the painting by Rembrandt, Saskia at Her Bath, stolen from a home never to return. It was burned! Argh!!!  grew up in Massachusetts and was fascinated to read of the Worcester museum theft, thefts from the Museum of Fine Art and of course the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum theft. It is an eerie sight to see the vacant frame still hanging in the museum where The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black used to hang. Perhaps the only thing more thrilling than acquiring a piece of great art is reading about great art heists. In “Stealing Rembrandts,” authors Amore (a columnist for the Boston Herald and head of security at a museum) and Mashberg (an investigative reporter for the Boston Herald) note that each year, galleries and collectors lose $6 billion in stolen artwork, and here they look at the big picture by concentrating on the number of Rembrandts that have been spirited away from their owners. In “Chasing Aphrodite,” Felch and Frammolino, both Los Angeles Times reporters, show that the black market can extend to well-respected institutions. While at the paper, the reporters led an investigation that uncovered the purchase by the J. Paul Getty Museum of stolen Greek and Roman antiquities. Their work eventually led to the return to Italy and Greece of more than a half-billion dollars’ worth of antiquities that were in American museums. In 2006, both were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This book wraps up what they discovered.

Authors, Mashberg (a journalist for The Boston Herald) and Amore (Security Director for The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) combined their prodigious talents to create this very interesting investigation into all of the paintings (and etchings) by Rembrandt that have been stolen, worldwide, throughout history. This relatively small book is encyclopedic in scope. Chapter Notes give insight into the remarkably wide net cast by the authors. In-depth research and first-person interviews allowed them to synthesize information and come to some fascinating conclusions which address, among other questions: Who steals art and why do they steal it? When was art stolen and where was it stolen from? Has all of the stolen art been recovered? Do art heists pay? Along with Rembrandt’s paintings, what other art has been stolen (or left behind)? What is the psychology behind art theft? How are thefts investigated and by whom? How do art experts determine whether paintings were created by Rembrandt or his students? There is even a list of 81 Rembrandt paintings (the “first-ever accounting of its kind”) of all known thefts from 1920 through a few years ago, “compiled by the authors using original research, news reports, academic journals, and law enforcement data-bases.” While I was in awe of this scope, my favorite part of “Stealing Rembrandts” was, by far, the mini-biography of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn interspersed throughout. Accounts of museum guards with moxie and law enforcement agents with skill and imagination were also quite interesting. With one exception, I was somewhat exasperated reading about the petty thieves who actually managed to abscond with valuable Rembrandt paintings, sometimes damaging them. (The exception was detailed in Chapter Six: “Devil’s Bargain: The MFA Heist.”) Putting a thief’s name in print lends him a certain air of credibility and glamour. Imagine, if you will, the “Rogues Gallery,” frequenting their favorite bar, each with his mug buried in “Stealing Rembrandts,” calling out, “Hey, Mack, I’m on page 113!” An excerpt:
“Rembrandt went on to paint more than 60 known self-portraits on canvas, wood, and metal during his lifetime, a remarkable tally that has provided historians with a multimedium chronology of his life and career. (He also drew and etched himself numerous times.) Art historian Kenneth Clark says ‘with the possible exception of van Gogh, [Rembrandt is] the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic expression; and he is absolutely the only one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.’ Clark also observed: ‘To follow his exploration of his own face [through the decades] is an experience like reading the works of the great Russian novelists.’ ”
Stealing Rembrandts Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists  Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashber  Palgrave Macmillan

Related Posts

Artic Biennale
Open Source Salon with Hauser and Wirth - A new monthly discussion group
Advertise your next show on Artlyst from £200 per week