St. Louis Post - Dispatch March 25, 1990

IMAGINE a small Renaissance palace of opulent grandeur yet intimately hospitable, neither cluttered nor severe, nor frivolous nor gloomy, with tiled floors, beamed ceilings, curtained windows, dark furniture, cut flowers and brocaded walls adorned here and there at considerate and unoppressive intervals with pictures of incomparable glory.

Imagine the rooms wrapped around a glass-roofed four-story courtyard (today it would be called an atrium) with banks of flowers and flowering trees. From the courtyard and its flowers come cool, incident light and the sweet, moist greenhouse aroma of growing things. Imagine that somewhere, in a room off the courtyard, someone is playing Haydn on the harpsichord.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (known also as Fenway Court or, to the locals, simply as Mrs. Gardner's) is quite unlike your conventional 20th-century art museums, with their restlessly impermanent exhibits and their objects displayed in isolation against stark white walls in windowless rooms without regard to the time, place and spirit of their creation.

Mrs. Gardner's is context. To those who've been associated with it, or visited it often, it is a magic castle, enchanted and changeless, that age cannot wither nor custom stale. It has been just that way for 87 years.

It is, incidentally, one of the world's great trysting places.

So, when a pair of thieves disguised as cops conned their way into the building early last Sunday morning and pulled off the biggest art heist of the century, perhaps the biggest in history, it was a sobering moment to its habitues, like a burglary at home.

The motives for the theft have been subject to speculation almost as artistic as the caper itself.

The first and most obvious theory was that the pieces must have been stolen on commission for a collector for his exclusive and private enjoyment. Of the 12 items stolen, several of them, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer and a Manet, are so well-known that it would be impossible to offer them for sale except on a highly secretive black market.

This scenario may not be so fantastic as it sounds. In Japan, for example, there is a two-year statute of limitations on hot art. A buyer of stolen art need only to keep it hidden for 24 months to avoid prosecution. After that the worst that can happen is that the rightful owner will take it back.

Less obvious but just as plausible is that the thieves, perhaps more familiar with the art of burglary than the world of art, stole on spec. Rather than filling orders for a sinister Dr. No, they took what they could easily carry and conceal in the hope of finding buyers later, or holding the items for ransom.

Or perhaps it was a combination of the two.

The largest picture stolen, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Rembrandt's only surviving seascape, measures only 64 by 51 inches. Like several other canvasses it was reportedly cut from its frame and presumably carried out rolled up, which probably didn't do it much good.

The least portable items were a Shang dynasty bronze vase and "Landscape With Obelisk," an oil on an oak panel, 28 by 21 1/2 inches, until nine years ago attributed to Rembrandt but now thought to be by a Rembrandt student, Govaert Flinck. Were the thieves, or their client, unaware of the downgrading in attribution?

The smallest was a tiny Rembrandt etching self-portrait, 1 3/4 by 2 inches, the kind of thing you could you put in your pocket.

Some of the thieves' selections were puzzling. They included five works on paper by Degas that were mounted behind glass on hinged panels that swing out from a cupboard. You have to open the cupboard doors and flip the panels to see them. Were they after a mixed assortment, some works so famous as to be unmarketable, to fill an order, others less well-known, which they expected to fence themselves?

Were the thieves after the Gardner Museum collection from the outset, or did they pick the Gardner after shopping around because they found it so vulnerable? There were straws in the wind.

At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is a few hundred yards from the Gardner Museum, two men in police uniform appeared at the service entrance one night recently and asked to be let in. The guard who answered the door told them he would have to consult his supervisor. When the guard and the supervisor returned, the men were gone.

Also recently, a man in civilian clothes appeared one night at the back door of the Gardner, told the guards he was about to be attacked by two men and begged for asylum. When the museum guards refused, he got in a car with his two alleged tormentors and drove off.

The pillage of the museum has been played out at least once before, in the imagination of mystery writer Jane Langton who made it the setting for "Murder at the Gardner." The book made the museum's administration uneasy because, they thought, it might give thieves guidance. It included an accurate plan of the building.

In Langton's story, the burglars made off with Titian's "Rape of Europa" (5 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 8 1/2 inches), the most famous item in the Gardner collection. It was once, and may still be, considered the most valuable painting in the Western Hemisphere.

The "Rape" is discovered hanging in a saloon - it is that kind of painting - and the story ends happily. But not before the museum trustees were obliged to face a grim fiduciary responsibility, dismantling of the collection.

Isabella Gardner's will stipulates that the building and its contents - objets d'art, letters, books, furniture, bric-a-brac, gee-gaws, knick-knacks, whatnots and all - must remain exactly as she left it, without addition or subtraction in perpetuity for the public enjoyment. She was an incorrigible pack rat who at her death still had her childhood notebook and the one-dollar gold pieces her father had brought back from the California gold rush when she was 8.

She was, by all accounts, a headstrong woman whose personal motto was C'est mon plaisir - It is my pleasure. You can see it today, graven in stone over the entrance to Fenway Court. Even temporary exhibitions of items from elsewhere are expressly forbidden.

Museum staffers are so sensitized on this point they make chalk marks on the floor when furniture is moved for cleaning to insure it will be returned to its assigned place.

There is a legend among them that on the third Tuesday of every month, Mrs. Gardner's ghost returns in the dead of night to check the place out. There must have been all hell to pay when they came to work last Wednesday morning.

She further stipulated that should the trustees change anything, the entire collection must be shipped to Paris and sold at auction and the proceeds turned over to Harvard University.

Which brings up that unthinkable thought (at least in Boston): Was Harvard by any chance behind the heist?

Now, Isabella Gardner's will was crafted by John Chipman Gray, a master of legal draftsmanship whose firm as the premier bond counsel in Boston holds virtually every unit of local government in New England hostage to its judgment. When two Indian tribes sued the state of Maine for return of their ancestral lands, Ropes & Gray determined that the action cast such a shadow over real estate titles in Maine as to put the taxing power of every municipality in doubt.

No one questioned Ropes & Gray, and all local government activity in the state nearly ground to a halt. It gave the Indians just the leverage they needed. They settled for a pretty sum.

But while Gray's language is clear about the price for tampering with the collection by the museum administration, it is unclear just what happens if the collection is damaged through an act of God, or theft. Would the museum still have to be dissolved? Would Harvard still benefit?

Will anybody - Harvard for example - even raise the question? Stay tuned for further developments.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was the grandest of the grande dames of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay of her day, and the least typical. High-spirited, unconventional, energetic and talented (she was an excellent dancer and a respectable watercolorist, musician and linguist) she was the stuff that legends are made of.

One thing she was not was beautiful. Portraits from life show a plain, slightly simian face with lashless round eyes and eyebrows so pale they were almost invisible. She freckled gloriously, a condition Victorians regarded as unfortunate as acne.

She was, in fact, not a Bostonian at all. She was born in 1840, the daughter of a New York businessman. She married John Lowell (Jack) Gardner, heir to a Boston textile and shipping empire, when she was 20. From then on she was known colloquially as Mrs. Jack.

After the death of her only child when she was 24, she threw herself into travel and patronage of the arts, and she did both with gusto. She had a talent for cultivating the great and near great and her circle of friends and beneficiaries included such luminaries as George Santayana, Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Sarah Bernhardt, Walter Lippmann, Nellie Melba, Pablo Casals, John Singer Sargent and, most important, her agent and art adviser, Bernard Berenson.

Her non-conformist style naturally gave rise to myths.

It is untrue, for example, that she climbed out a window of a convent school in Paris to elope with Jack Gardner. They were married in high church high fashion at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan.

It is not established that she kept a pride of lions in the basement of Fenway Court, through it is true that she sometimes kept a lion cub with her in her carriage.

There is no evidence that she converted to Buddhism in her declining years. She traveled in China and Japan and was one of the first Americans to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but she remained an Episcopalian (who flirted with Roman Catholicism) until her death.

She was known, however to receive guests at her Beacon Street house while perched on the limb of a tree. And during the building of Fenway Court, she joined the workmen in mixing plaster and had her foreman Tibaldeo Travi, nicknamed Bolgi, follow her around the work site with a cornet, which he used to summon the trades: one toot for a mason, two for a steamfitter, three for a plumber, and so forth.

The museum was built on the pattern of a Venetian palazzo with columns and arches imported from Italy incorporated into it. She lived in an apartment on the top floor from the time it was opened in 1903 until her death in 1924.

Her legacy is an institution run with a meticulous, idiosyncratic, rather fussy routine with few surprises - until now.

Jane Molloy Porter, a staff member in the mid-1950s whose offices included guiding groups through the museum, remembers it was difficult to anticipate the erudition of visitors.

Once she was leading an attentive and respectful group when halfway through the tour one of them asked, "Are they all hand painted?"

There were only occasional emergencies, such as the time a deranged woman came in and started poking out the eyes of the paintings with a knitting needle.

The security force in those days was composed mainly of kindly, sentimental, elderly Irishmen and it is hard to imagine they would present a formidable obstacle to clever thieves. But they took a paternalistic view of Jane, owing possibly to her Irish origins (she was still Molloy when she started there) and her pixieish, fairy-changeling looks, and they liked to tease her and her suitors - much to their embarrassment - about setting a date for the wedding.

"I know it's not fashionable now for a museum with all those juxtapositions of things from different places and times and everything static, but it really is a wonderful place." she said. "What happened is a real shame."

And perhaps because of the magic of the setting it was a wonderful place to press a suit, too, especially with someone who fit it so comfortably as Jane. Anyway, I was smitten.

I still am.

Copyright St. Louis Post - Dispatch


Gardner Museum Heist