A hole in Boston’s civic heart

Above, ”The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt was one of more than a dozen pieces stolen. Left, Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1905. Above, ”The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt was one of more than a dozen pieces stolen. Left, Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1905. (Associated Press)
March 18, 2010

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IT’S TEMPTING to view the art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 20 years ago today, as the opening scene in a Cary Grant caper movie, or perhaps the first chapter of a Dan Brown thriller about ancient secrets hidden on canvas. With its bloodless plot and drawing-room setting, the Gardner heist feels like a refreshingly old-fashioned mystery — less offensive, and certainly less injurious, than the usual headline-grabbing crime.

But the victim of the Gardner theft wasn’t any person, or even the wider community of art lovers: It was Boston itself, whose aspirations to high culture and to sharing it with all citizens were embodied in the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Hers was no small dream, and it represented the hopes of a generation who did much to make the city what it is today, whether by founding a symphony, investing in libraries, supporting great architecture, or buying art treasures and bringing them to Massachusetts. Her dream hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been violated, and it won’t be fully restored until the Rembrandt and Vermeer and other stolen works are back in their appointed places.

The evil in the Gardner plot wasn’t simply in coveting the paintings. It was in taking advantage of Isabella Gardner’s unique vision. She conceived of a museum in which disparate works were displayed eclectically, like in a home, based on personal taste rather than monetary worth. She believed that such a setting could, by itself, stir the creative juices of musicians, writers, and painters, and so opened her palazzo on the Fenway to the artistic community. After her death in 1924, she extended the invitation to the whole city, with the requirement that nothing be altered.

That stipulation ensured that her vision would live on, but it presented obvious security challenges; her onetime home was not a fortress-like museum, nor was there much space for the latest sensors and alarms. The thieves knew that, and in exploiting lax security they were essentially taking advantage of Isabella Gardner’s trust in the people of Boston.

Gifts, especially highly personal ones, are to be respected. And the people involved in the Gardner heist — whom authorities believe may well be within the circulation area of this newspaper — deserve a special place of infamy. They disrespected a city and took a piece of its heritage. The FBI and Boston police should pursue them to the end of their days.

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