Stolen Art

Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, painted in 1633, is one of the pieces stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990 and not yet recovered.

Danny Ocean and his team could have done it neater, with more finesse and style, but certainly with no greater success.

In 1990, two men posing as Boston police officers ripped off the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the largest art theft in history, rivaling anything seen in Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, or Thirteen. The phrase “ripped off” is not used here as slang; the thieves literally ripped priceless art treasures from their frames, in some cases leaving bits of canvas behind. After binding the two night guards with duct tape and handcuffs, the thieves spent just over an hour seizing 300 million dollars worth of art by Degas, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and others.

Other than a few cryptic leads, there’s been little to guide investigators to the art which to this day remains lost. While it’s unlikely the pieces have been destroyed, it’s doubtful the thieves would be foolish enough to try selling them on the open market either. The pieces are simply too well known and the details of their theft too widely publicized to allow any reputable dealer to touch them.

Of course, there are plenty of disreputable dealers who would be only too happy to provide a home to the purloined prizes. That is the problem facing authorities around the world; there are too many art collectors who covet rare pieces, and too many greedy auction houses willing to satisfy those collectors for the right price.

Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, maintains a registry of stolen items, currently listing over 31,000 works of art and cultural property. But it does little good if those who deal in art turn a blind eye when they encounter works of questionable provenance.

Such has been the case with Nazi-looted art.

During the Second World War, wealthy Jews desperate to flee Nazi-controlled territories often had little choice but to sell precious works of art for a pittance to finance their escape. In other cases, when Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others were loaded like cattle into boxcars and shipped off to concentration camps, the goods they left behind became easy prey for Hitler’s henchmen like Herman Goering who could simply pick and choose what they wanted. The art they wanted, the valuable pieces, would be shipped to secret storage facilities, some in underground bunkers in the Austrian Alps. Items deemed to be of lesser worth might be sold to finance the war machine or simply destroyed.

Decades later, those who escaped or survived the Nazi death camps, and their descendants, face often insurmountable hurdles in recovering their family’s art. During the chaos of the time, records that could prove an item’s provenance were often destroyed. Claimants might know a certain piece had been in their family for generations, but they have nothing to substantiate such assertions.

Those currently in possession of disputed works invariably insist they bought and paid for the pieces from reputable dealers and are loath to relinquish prized and valuable artifacts without compensation.

Of course, art lost during war is not an occurrence of the past only.

During the most recent conflicts in the Middle East, large numbers of works of art and archeological artifacts have been plundered when military action has destabilized a region, leaving museums and private collectors at the mercy of looters. The National Museum of Iraq, for example, is believed to have lost tens of thousands of rare items, many dating back over 5000 years, when American troops invaded Baghdad in April 2003 but left the museum unprotected.

This is a loss that affects us all.

While most of us will never own an original Rembrandt or Monet, and so may feel little connection to or sympathy with wealthy claimants trying to recover their family heirlooms, the items ripped from the Iraqi National Museum belong, in a sense, to all of us. The museum housed artifacts from the dawn of civilization, our civilization, when humans first learned to craft items from silver and gold, when we first learned to record our thoughts and feelings in written form on clay tablets.

With these artifacts lost, perhaps forever, a piece of our cultural identity has been lost as well.