On the morning of March 19, 1990, thieves in the guise of policemen entered Boston’s renowned Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Eighty-one minutes later, after restraining the night guard staff, the thieves left the museum with thirteen works of art, including works by Rembrandt, Manet, Degas, and Vermeer.
This brazen heist, which today is valued at more than $500 million, remains the largest unsolved art theft in history.
A new exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Kota Ezawa: The Crime of Art, explores the enduring mystique of this impressive crime, which remains firmly rooted in our collective consciousness.
The Gardner Museum opened in 1903, a private museum born from the personal collecting of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband, John, who was known as Jack. The couple’s collecting habits grew exponentially following a $1.75m inheritance from Isabella’s father, and soon the couple turned their attention from
a personal collection to one for the public. The idea for the museum was born, and architect Willard Sears was hired to construct a purpose-built facility. Isabella proved to be an active participant in the process, showing up most days to supervise construction. Upon her death in 1924, Isabella provided an endowment to operate the museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever,” provided that future leadership keep all the galleries as she had them installed during her lifetime. By that time, her collection numbered twenty-five hundred objects that ranged from antiquities through the present day.
Isabella’s fondness for her collection is conveyed in letters she wrote to her art advisor, Bernard Berenson, saying “I suppose the picture-habit (which I seem to have) is as bad as the morphine or the whiskey one – and it does cost,” and “downstairs, I feel are all those glories I could go look at, if I wanted to! Think of that. I can see that Europa, that Rembrandt, that Bonifazio, that Velazquez et al. – any time I want to. That’s richness for you.”
The Rembrandt self-portrait in ink (1633) and a painting by Vermeer, The Concert (1658-60) were not only among some of the first works Isabella and Jack purchased before his sudden
death in 1898, they were also among the thirteen objects coveted by the thieves in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. They left with two other Rembrandts, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633), and his only known seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633); Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878-80); Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638); five Degas’ works on paper; a bronze eagle finial by Antoine-Denis Chauet; and a Chinese Gu (beaker). Despite a $10m reward for “information leading directly to the recovery of all thirteen works of art in good condition, and a separate $100,000 reward for the Napoleonic finial” (according to the Gardner’s website), all objects remain missing.
Inspired by these and other art crimes, Kota Ezawa, a California-based Japanese-
German artist, turned his interest in digital animation and reliance on blocks of color rather than detailed compositions into reimaging these lost works of art. Of his process, Ezawa says, “I developed a style of drawing where I manually trace over existing films, videos, photographs and
paintings. The process has changed gradually. My early drawings were very reduced and minimal. Over time they have become more elaborate. In a way, I’m creating some kind of ghost image of the original. I found that these ghost images emit some kind of power that I’m trying to tap into … My own process has been described as a form of appropriation which is close to the act of stealing. While I don’t think I take anything away from anybody, I do feel some kind of affinity to the mindset of a thief.”