Last year we called shenanigans on the seemingly-random, but actually predictable “updates” about March 18 1990 theft of paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, and others from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Our point last year was simple: the manufactured stories about what the FBI claims to know (“confirmed sightings” and the supposed identity of the supposed thief) are worse than no news. The FBI has no idea where those paintings are, and I am highly skeptical of the FBI’s claims to know who did it. It’s theoretically possible that protecting the identity of a dead thief would be important to an ongoing investigation, but that presupposes that there is anything going on. I am unpersuaded that anything new has happened in years.
But we’re not going to beat that drum again today, because by contrast they are some far more interesting stories this year. The first actually came out two weeks ago in the New York Times. Entitled “Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist: 25 Years of Theories,” the article comes with an inherent credibility because it was written by Tom Mashberg. Mashberg is the reporter who was led to a dark warehouse in 1997 and told he was being shown Remdbrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Later tests called that into question, and the episode is considered inconclusive. Mashberg’s main point now (and he’s also written an excellent book on the topic) is to trace, Zodiac style, the various theories and explanations that have emerged over the years, critically. It’s thorough, and essential, reading.
The second and happier development is the announcement by the Gardner itself of a virtual tour of the stolen art. It’s uncomplicated, but the initiative restores to prominence why the theft matters: because you can no longer see these paintings in a museum. It’s also an interesting evolution, because since the theft the museum has left empty frames where the art was, a powerful statement of loss. But the recent move takes a different, and important step. The loss is important and devastating, but the art was once there and holds meaning—both in and of itself, and because of the unique atmosphere of the museum and the idiosyncratic placement and hanging. The virtual tour includes historic photos showing where the art used to be. It’s worth a visit.