Day 32: Boston’s Gardner Museum, the site of the biggest art theft in history, is BTS

Once A.T. and I got to the Titian Room on the third level, with its high ceilings, its walls adorned by Diego Velazquez’s Philip IV of Spain and Bellini’s Christ Carrying the Cross, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gardner Museum’s lush courtyard in full bloom, I felt transported to the eccentric Miss Havisham’s mansion in “Great Expectations” as dreamed up by Alfonso Cuaron as she swayed and shimmied to “Besame Mucho”. The Gardner Museum, established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner, is a menagerie of the wealthy arts patron’s favorite things: paintings and sculptures and ceramics and manuscripts that she has amassed in her world travels.

The collection is quite the cultural smorgasbord, as the Gardners’ travels through Asia, the Middle East and Europe fostered an appreciation for different cultures. In 1867, the Gardners traveled to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna and Paris, and crossed Norway to see the midnight sun. During 1882 and 1883, they traveled around the world, visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia (where they rode on an oxcart through the jungles to see the ruins of Angkor Wat), Indonesia, India, Egypt and Palestine.

From the outside, the museum evokes the feel of a Venetian Renaissance palazzo, but it was built entirely from the ground up in Boston, out of new materials. The design itself incorporates numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures. The antique elements are seamlessly worked into the design of the turn-of-the-century building. Special tiles were custom designed for the floors, modern concrete was used for some of the structural elements, and antique capitals sit atop modern columns. The interior garden courtyard is covered by a glass roof, with steel support structure original to the building. It is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance paintings, as well as in 19th-century works by John Singer Sargeant and James McNeill Whistler. The first Matisse to enter an American collection is housed there.

The museum’s other claim to fame (which I discovered only after my visit) is that it is the site of the biggest art theft in history which remains unsolved to this day. On the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum and stole thirteen works of art, including a painting by Vermeer (The Concert) and three Rembrandts (two paintings, including his only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and a small self-portrait print) as well as works by Manet, Degas, Govaert Flinck, and a French and a Chinese artifact. The thieves removed works of art whose value has been estimated as high as $300 million. (Criminals they may be, but I can say they have excellent taste in art.) The museum still displays the paintings’ empty frames in their original locations due to the strict provisions of Gardner’s will, which instructed that the collection be maintained unchanged. 

 

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