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Book Review

An art heist primer, and a plea to thieves

By Chuck Leddy
July 27, 2011

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As head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Anthony Amore knows a few things about stealing Rembrandts. Back in 1990, the Gardner was the target of an infamous heist in which three of its four Rembrandts disappeared. None have been recovered, though Amore is still working on the case. What he and coauthor Tom Mashberg, a former editor and reporter at both the Boston Herald and the Globe, do in their nonfiction narrative is to catalog several historical cases in which Rembrandts have been stolen.

They begin by dispelling popular misconceptions. First, they show that the overwhelming majority of art thieves are not sophisticated connoisseurs or criminal masterminds. They are generally small-time crooks looking for an easy score, and museums that house Rembrandts are usually “softer’’ targets than, say, banks or armored cars. In about 80 percent of art heists, the authors note, the thieves have the assistance of someone who has worked inside the museum.

Museum security people understand the contradiction between making art accessible and keeping it secure from thieves. They “are engaged in an endless struggle to make art approachable without making it vulnerable. It leads to hard choices,’’ write the authors.

Second, the authors show that there are no rich or eccentric art lovers waiting in line to buy stolen Rembrandts. Fencing a famous painting is even harder than stealing it. About the best the thieves can generally hope for is to ransom the pieces back to the museums, which often exposes the thieves to capture.

The authors interview some of today’s highest-profile art thieves, including Massachusetts residents Myles J. Connor and Florian “Al’’ Monday. Connor, who keeps an alligator in his bathtub, is certainly an eccentric who knows a lot about art heists. Back in 1975, as Connor faced charges in another art heist case, he robbed a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Connor brazenly, and effectively, offered to “help recover’’ the MFA Rembrandt in exchange for leniency in his pending case. The authors describe Connor’s chutzpah-filled strategy as “fine art for freedom.’’ The most absorbing part of the entire book is the verbatim testimony from Connor about how he cased museums, identified security weaknesses, planned his operations, implemented them, and sought to profit from the art he stole.

The book follows several Rembrandt heists closely, such as a 2000 armed invasion of a museum in Stockholm. The authors describe how the FBI organized a sting in which an agent posed as a buyer looking to purchase the stolen Rembrandt. It worked, and the painting was recovered.

The authors make it clear that stealing Rembrandts doesn’t pay. The cost to the public is immense, as priceless works fall into an abyss of remote warehouses and underground crypts where they may get damaged or destroyed. The authors conclude with a final plea to art thieves in general, and the purveyors of the 1990 Gardner heist in particular: “We hope that this book drives home the folly of art theft, a crime that costs us dearly and certainly does not pay, and that it inspires some to come forward with the whereabouts of these irreplaceable and unrivaled treasures.’’

While “Stealing Rembrandts’’ does a fine job speaking to art thieves, the general reader will find here neither the thrill of a detective story nor the splendor of a Rembrandt portrait. A focus on one heist instead of dozens may have reaped more rewards for readers seeking more drama and less analysis of bygone cases gathering dust in police annals.

Chuck Leddy can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

STEALING REMBRANDTS:

The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

By Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

Palgrave Macmillan, 241 pp., illustrated, $25