Stealing Rembrandts: Why the Dutch Master is so Popular with Thieves

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. One commodity that seems recession proof is art. Fine art has held its value. Some auction houses such as Sothebys are even setting records for art sales this year. So a famous painting remains a good investment and it's also a good target for thieves.

[film clip]

Mullins: That's from the 1999 version of the film The Thomas Crown Affair. You might remember the suave Pierce Brosnan going to great lengths to throw off museum security. It's a clever film but it's fiction. Author Anthony Amore has the facts. Amore is co-author of a new book called Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Story of Notorious Art Heists. Anthony, is the average art heist like what we saw in the Hollywood character in the Thomas Crown Affair?

Anthony Amore: Nothing at all. Nothing. I mean the people who steal them are entirely different from Pierce Brosnan's character.

Mullins: Meaning they're not art aficionados?

Amore: Sometimes they know art but they're not the suave, debonaire type of people who steal art for their own personal enjoyment.

Mullins: What are they? What's the prototypical character?

Amore: Almost always they are people who are common criminals who have robbed pharmacies or tried to rob banks or armored cars then housebreaks. They're stealing the art for one reason and one reason only - for it's value, either to try to monetize, which they're never successful in doing or maybe to use it as a chit to try to get out of jail free at some point.

Mullins: Anthony Amore, you have a particular interest in art theft, especially now that you are head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. For those who may not know, I wonder if you can update people on the museum's history.

Amore: Sure, the Gardner Museum is an institution that was created by Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston with the intent to give America it's first great museum. Unfortunately in 1990 thieves entered the museum and stole 13 masterpieces.

Mullins: Thirteen masterpieces and three of them were Rembrandts?

Amore: There were three Rembrandts. Two were large paintings; one was an etching, a self-portrait. One of the two paintings that were stolen was Storm in the Sea Galilee which is unique amongst Rembrandts works because it's his only known seascape.

Mullins: So when you took this job, could I guess that retrieving these paintings was pretty high on your agenda?

Amore: One of the things I learned about the Gardner is you had no choice but to make it high on your agenda. The Gardner sucks you in because it's such an amazing place and you fall in love with it in seconds and when you see the empty frames in the wall, it's... I was often likened it to a homicide detective who has to see the outline of a body, not just at the crime scene but every day and I see these frames every single day. But they're up because they're larger pieces and they're placeholders. It's our message to the public that we know that these paintings will be back where they belong one day.

Mullins: You have highlighted though the cases in your book of Rembrandts that have been taken; 81 thefts of Rembrandts in the past 100 years. Why Rembrandt works?

Amore: Rembrandt is the second most stolen artist in history, only to Picasso. But Picasso produced many more works. Both of them should be no surprise to anybody. You didn't even have to graduate high school to know Rembrandt was a great artist. He's synonymous with great art and people also know that great art has high value attached to it. When you combine those two factors with the fact that basically every major city has Rembrandts in their museums and museums are set up to be accessible to the public, you have almost a perfect storm for a thief to try to take something of great value thinking they can monetize it.

Mullins: So how often are Rembrandts that are stolen recovered?

Amore: It's very difficult to get exact metrics on how often paintings are stolen or recovered. Art theft is vastly under-reported. Oftentimes private collections and private collectors don't want people to know what they have or what they've lost because they seem vulnerable. But we do know that when masterworks, including Rembrandts, are stolen from museums, there is a very high recovery rate. Some people say around 60%. One thing we do know also is that when the FBI will tell you that when a masterpiece is stolen it's either recovered very soon or after a generation.

Mullins: After a generation because why? The next generation is just trying to make up for the sins of the previous one?

Amore: Maybe. I think one of the other reasons might be sometimes a thief steals something and they die. The famous thing about wives become ex-wives, friends become former friends, and then maybe after a generation when someone's lost some sort of street power, people who knew them might be more likely to talk.

Mullins: How about in this very strange case that you write about, about the one Rembrandt that has been stolen four times to earn the title the takeaway Rembrandt?

Amore: It's an amazing story. The portrait of Jacob de Gheyn by Rembrandt. Jacob de Gheyn wound up at the Dulwich picture gallery. From 1966 until around the mid 80s the painting was stole four times in different manners and for different reasons and it's a great little illustration of how art theft happens and why.

Mullins: This is a gallery in south London.

Amore: Yes.

Mullins: And just briefly, the four times.

Amore: The first time it was stolen a thief cut a hole into a seldom used door at the museum, a small hole. The called him the rubber boned thief because he was able to get through the small hole and get out with a couple of Rembrandts. He took it thinking, again, he could maybe monetize it or what have you, found that he couldn't and left that and other pieces under a park bench and told the police that's where they could find it. A few years later another thief came in broad daylight, lifted it off the wall, walked out of the museum, put it on the back of his bicycle, and was caught minutes later by the police and said he wanted to take it home to sketch it.

Mullins: There is something drastically wrong already, just on number two.

Amore: Sure.

Mullins: With what is happening in that gallery. So what happened the third time?

Amore: The third and fourth time involved a little more intricate thefts where thieves came through the skylight at the Dulwich gallery. When you think about these older museums though, these galleries, they weren't built for security, they were built for aesthetics so you have these vulnerable parts to them that thieves exploited. Both times though when the thieves took them they crossed European borders but they couldn't do anything with them. The third time they were caught by authorities based on a tip. The fourth time they were left in a locker at a bus depot because again, it's too well known to move.

Mullins: How about your own work again? Anthony, as we close out I'm kind of curious because you say it's like you live with this heist at the Gardner museum every day because you can see the empty frames. I wonder at the same time, you have steeped yourself in the ways of those who commit art heists. Can you see the temptation ever? Do you kind of get it?

Amore: I get it only in the fact that when I speak to the people who've stolen paintings and they talk about the feeling of holding a Rembrandt, being alone with it, even though they plan to sell it and don't care about it as they should, that moment when you hold a Rembrandt piece and it's in your hands and it's just you and that piece alone, it's exhilarating. I can understand that. I would never put my hands on a Rembrandt painting unless I was recovering it but you could see the allure of a Rembrandt. One only has to go to the Gardner and see Rembrandt's self portrait that we have. It was painted when he was 23. It's amazing and you can stand there all day and look at it and not get tired and you could see why someone would value it and see that they could get a lot of money for it. But museums are built for accessibility. Some people look at them as a playground for rich people. They're not. There's nothing more egalitarian in my mind than a museum. It's bringing the best man can create and giving it to the masses. So you want to make the stuff accessible. It's there for you to enjoy and unfortunately people take advantage of that.

Mullins: Anthony Amore, thank you. Nice to have you here.

Amore: My pleasure, thanks.

Mullins: Anthony Amore is co-author with Tom Mashbrook of the new book Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Are Heists. Thanks again.

Amore: Thank you.