Book Review: Why stealing a Rembrandt seldom pays off

“Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists” (Palgrave Macmillan), by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

In 1997, a gang of criminals escorted Boston Herald Sunday Editor Tom Mashberg to an undisclosed warehouse and showed him an old master oil painting.

Inspecting the painting by flashlight, Mashberg believed it to be Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” famously stolen, along with several other priceless pictures, from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Since Mashberg’s possible sighting, the missing Gardner artworks have gone back underground, and the crime remains unsolved.

Mashberg has now teamed up with the Gardner Museum’s head of security, Anthony M. Amore, to write “Stealing Rembrandts,” a detailed look at numerous robberies targeting works by the great Dutch master over the past century. Combining impressive shoe-leather reporting skills with solid art-world knowledge, this fascinating book debunks many myths about museum heists while providing vivid profiles of the criminals and their motives.

The wealthy-but-evil collector who commissions museum robberies to enrich his private holdings is pure Hollywood fantasy, the authors convincingly demonstrate. Most museum heists are carried out by professional criminals who wrongly imagine a Rembrandt can be fenced as easily as other stolen property.

Unlike diamonds or gold, a celebrated old master painting actually has little street value. Instantly recognizable, it cannot be reintroduced into the legitimate marketplace without attracting attention and is therefore difficult for criminals to monetize.

In-depth interviews with several art thieves show that taking a Rembrandt usually nets the robber not a financial windfall but a hostage made of paint and canvas. Ransoms can be demanded and produced, but as the authors note, most hostage situations ultimately go badly for the criminals.

Popular culture too often glamorizes museum heists. As Amore and Mashberg show, stealing a Rembrandt seldom pays off for the thieves but makes the world at large infinitely poorer. With hard facts and a cleareyed perspective, this book sets the record straight.

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Jonathan Lopez is editor-at-large of Art & Antiques.

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