The introduction to Simon Houpt’s book Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft begins with the heartbreaking true story:
“It may be the most haunting work of art in the world.
It has no canvas, no oil paint, no artist’s signature. Official appraisals would say it is worthless. It is just a single carved wood frame, the color of burnished gold, hanging on an easel draped in heavy brown fabric. Until one late winter night in 1990, that frame held The Concert, one of only thirty-six known works by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Like so many of Vermeer’s paintings, The Concert is famously enigmatic. It quietly imposes itself on the viewer, insisting on contemplation. And here, in the Dutch Room on the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a wide-backed chair upholstered in light green Victorian fabric sits in front of the easel, courteously placed there so that a visitor might pause to reflect on the painting’s luminous beauty and the many secrets it holds.
But in 1990, when two thieves ransacked the museum during the city’s post-St. Patrick’s Day inebriated haze, plucking the Vermeer and twelve other treasures, including three Rembrandts and a Govaert Flinck from this same room, the greatest secret of The Concert became its location. Now, if you go to the Gardner, you will see a heartbreaking tableau: that chair staring up at the empty frame, as if in eternal contemplation of the loss.”
As noted on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website, the stolen works include: “Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and a Self Portrait (1634), an etching on paper; Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660); and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638); and a Chinese vase or Ku, all taken from the Dutch Room on the second floor. Also stolen from the second floor were five works on paper by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and a finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag, both from the Short Gallery. Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) was taken from the Blue Room on the first floor.”
The approximately $500 million worth of art stolen from the Gardner is still an open case, and there is a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the 13 pieces. The FBI maintains a dedicated webpage on the case.
The latter portion of Houpt’s book contains the Gallery of Missing Art, an assortment of artwork that has been stolen with a brief paragraph on each piece. And of course, the color pictures of the stolen art are amazing.
There were two security guards on duty that night in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (they were unscathed). I’m so glad I wasn’t one of them–the thieves duped the guards by dressing up as city policemen, stating that they were there for a call.