The recognition of art thievery

Should they be more acknowledged and are they already?

April 4, 2023

It’s late after hours. Security guards are keeping watch over the priceless items being contained behind them. Some pieces include  “The Concert,”  a painting in the Dutch room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the “Jeune fille accoudée sur le bras gauche” in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, or even the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre museum. It’s almost without warning that those paintings are about to go missing for years or never be found again.

Like many incidents, these thefts could have been avoided. Points that should have stuck at the time should have been the following; Watch who cleans the paintings, double check the locks on the skylight, and finally, don’t let anyone in after hours, not even the police.

The guards at the Gardner were blindfolded and gagged, and the guards at the Museum of Fine Arts, left in a similar condition, while the Mona Lisa with its frame left in the stairwell, its only trace. Done by a one-man job, a duo in disguise, or a three-person crime with extraordinary outcomes, all leaving an empty space where they used to be.

But is that all they ended up leaving?  

Art heists or thefts are rarely acknowledged, and as unknown, as they may be, they may be the reason for some of the high security in museums, reasons for some bestsellers in books, ideas, entertainment, and even the real reason for popularity behind some of the world’s most famous paintings.

 Over the past years, there have been countless paintings stolen and/or destroyed. However, is the effect this crime leaves large enough for acknowledgment? When it comes to art heists, only a few are ever solved, and there is so much mystery behind them. Some of these heists haven’t even been solved many years later.  People are forgetting the origins of the heists and the question really is, should they? Should the heist be something to look into, and more importantly, what kind of impact are these heists leaving behind? 

Are art heists gaining the correct acknowledgment and recognition they deserve for their impact on society?

Art Thefts 

First of all, what are art thefts, and how much do they mean?

Art theft is the stealing of art, paintings, and artworks, typically being taken from an art museum or gallery. They’re most unique or if anything, some of the most fascinating sorts of crimes in history. Most art stolen is usually worth thousands or even millions of dollars. But what about art makes it so valuable that it’s more worth it to steal something from a more direct source like money or jewelry which will make you instantly benefit? 

Kio Sou, an iSchool freshman, seems to share the same sentiment, as she says, “I think they’re mysterious, I think they’re really unique because people can steal anything, they can steal money, but they chose to steal art which is really interesting because not many people care about art.” The thing with art heists is that most of the paintings stolen are extremely costly. Many pieces of art when auctioned as well can be sold for up to a million. 

But with these paintings being taken, and not rightfully bought or being one’s own painting, stealing them, of course, is a crime. iSchoolar Aisha Peters believes that “As far as I am concerned, [committing] art heists should [lead to] imprisoned in jail, even if they did not commit a particular crime, such as murder, and should get nearly the same amount of time in prison…Many people disagree with me and believe that I am exaggerating, but paintings have a lot of value, and they can sometimes have different meanings to different people.” She goes on to add that getting work in a museum is difficult and that even having art in a museum takes a lot of patience, so when the painting is taken away illegally, it’s unfair. Most of these art pieces that have been stolen are also valuable in terms of their history in a particular country or religion. Many people enjoy looking at these pictures, sculptures, or items at the museum.

Roan Brown, an iSchoolar, shares the same sentiment as she says, “I think that they’re really quite a shame because it’s art that they [people] enjoy…and art heists always take away from that and most of the time they wouldn’t even be able to sell it [what they stole] because the paintings are too on them. And it’s more like a crime without much of a purpose and just brings sadness to people.”

When most paintings are stolen and if they are popular enough, they are in fact difficult to get rid of as most people are fearful that somebody could recognize the taken art. An example of this would be in the Montreal heist, where it’s reported on, “… experts believe that the majority of the artworks were destroyed because they were too well-known to be resold.”

Most paintings that have been stolen have so much historical value in them that it shows a lot about human civilization and how it has grown. When it’s taken away, there may be an emotional effect on some people. 

iSchool art teacher Ms. Smith shares her intel saying that some people do value these things, regardless of their background, and that they should at least honor it: “I think that people do value these things, some people more than others, not everybody cares about art or objects that are supposedly beautiful and valuable and culturally important. But I think a lot of people do and we do feel the loss even if it’s not here or not a piece of art that’s from your background or whatever, I mean like a couple of years ago when Notre Dame was burning, I felt so sad and I don’t live in Paris.”  

Though not physically impacting anyone and while most of these heists have gone unnoticed, one thing is for sure: they left at least a percentage of impact on our society.

And could it be a possibility that a discreet impact is within the heist of one of the most famous paintings in the world? This painting, although famous for a long time, its popularity took off drastically right after being stolen. 

The Mona Lisa Theft

The Mona Lisa is one of the world’s most famous paintings, if not the most famous painting. However, the reason for its popularity is more complex than what most people are aware of. The Mona Lisa’s popularity first grew because of the simplicity behind it – someone taking so much time to paint a picture of a normal person instead of some sort of royal or high official. But it could not be the only reason why its popularity has grown so drastically over the years. 

Of course, it’s no surprise that someone had wanted to steal the picture, any picture popular enough is bound to get some sort of crazy thing happening to it. But why was this heist so important? If this heist truly left an impact on society, would the heist need more recognition? Though of course, that is if the heist even left anything worthy enough for the people to acknowledge.

The theft took place on August 20th, 1911 at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. A man was able to hide in the storage closet of the museum, due to the lack of effective security measures, and waited until 7:15 a.m. to exit the closet. He disguised himself as one of the museum’s employees, with a white apron, and he took off the painting and left its frame in the stairwell after being let out by a passerby plumber, who wasn’t aware of the theft and thought the man was simply working. The Mona Lisa, and most paintings at the Louvre, were often removed for cleaning and such, so it didn’t necessarily come off as a surprise when it was not in its frame for a day. But as that day quickly stretched into two days, people began questioning its whereabouts, and they quickly realized that the painting was stolen. And, according to Britannica, “After two years, the Mona Lisa was recovered, but not before it had achieved a level of global celebrity unmatched by virtually any other painting”  

A modern-day picture of the Mona Lisa Credits: Micah Shapiro

This heist, although the impact is uncertain, surely left some sort of impression on the people who know about it. Freshman iSchoolar, Amelia Balserio shares, “…the way that it took so long for the people to find out that the Mona Lisa was stolen. And also the fact that the janitor thought he was a coworker and I feel like that was really cool…”. Meanwhile, with the argument of common knowledge, this theft is more understandably unknown, considering it was over a few decades ago and there is more going on today. Sarah Keane-Curattalo, a student at the High School for Art and Design, shares, “I don’t think [the theft is] common knowledge at all, I was not aware that this was the reason it became famous and I think that should be something that is taught in school because it is extremely interesting that this is the reason [why it’s popular].” 

So what does that mean? Has the heist truly left an impact on the Mona Lisa’s popularity or even its security? 

“At least 120,000 people went to see the painting in the first two days after it was returned to the Louvre,” states, “Art lovers and critics launched into fresh speculation about its subject’s mysterious smile, and it was referenced in countless cartoons, advertisements, parodies, postcards, and songs.” Furthermore, according to most sources, the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings of all time, and at some points, it is even the inspiration for many items or shows and such. Sarah goes into how she had learned about the Mona Lisa through education, “The Mona Lisa I learned via art classes, back in elementary school…as in the famous painting.” She does state that she might have been aware it was stolen at one point, as many things do happen to the famous painting but she reveals, “I didn’t know it was stolen for two years. So that was interesting”  

When it comes to the impression it left on society, however, it seems that the heist, according to a few individuals, did in fact leave an impact: “I believe it left an impact in society,” states iSchoolar Rosaly Marmolejos, “mostly because I think that with the place where the Mona Lisa was kept, they had learned to be more cautious when it comes to valuable history Masterpieces.” 

Taking what Rosaly said into account, the security near the Mona Lisa has in fact changed over the past decades since the theft. Ms. Gray, an English teacher at the iSchool, who has gone to see the painting, states that though she is unsure if the security has been changed, that in modern times, it is very secure with all the busy crowds coming in to see it. 

Kio believes that it also affected society and if anything, it rang an alarm, “I think it kind of scared people, it added more security to other art pieces, they kind of gave a warning to society. Like, you should pay attention to the history more, and not the looks, and should actually search it up and try to be alert for what’s going on.” She claims that people only ‘see’ it and that they should instead lend an ear and know what is truly going on with the painting before just going simply look at it. With the alarming rates of people going to visit it and the increase in security it has gained over the years, could it be that the theft led to such extremes? Currently, there is a railing leading a few forced feet away from the people viewing it, leading to the Mona Lisa’s personal space. Furthermore, the painting is kept in a glass case and now over 100 million people visit the Mona Lisa each year. 

The Canada Heist

This heist is likely one of the most ‘cartoon style’ events or even the most movie themed of the sort. This huge escape includes men coming from the skylight and a mystery hardly solved to this day.

The Canada Montreal theft took place on September 4, 1972. Three men broke into the Montreal art museum using a rope to come in from a skylight. They spent thirty minutes in the museum, taking more pieces than they could carry and plenty of jewelry. In the end, before one of them tripped the alarm, they left with eighteen paintings and many other items and pieces of jewelry from the museum. They had taken a few worthy paintings and had instead left more valuable ones untouched. The most popular painting they had taken was a Rembrandt, a very well-known and popular artist who has created many famous and admired paintings. To this day, they still do not know who had done it even though two of the items have been returned. As it is written in CBC, “No suspects were ever arrested and the trail of the missing art has long since gone cold.”

With this heist, it almost seems surreal and if anything very ‘generically’ themed. As Ms. Smith says, “…it’s weird to me that someone can just break in with a rope and take these really valuable paintings.”Most crimes come with a lot of practice and planning, and if anything, a little bit of luck, but for someone to just come in on a rope and snatch paintings? That is something not commonly found in modern-day non-fiction. 

But if the events that took place are so intriguing, then why isn’t the heist more popular? There could be many factors to this, one of them being that this heist didn’t take place in a more popular area or that it’s been unheard of for a couple of decades. Sarah says that it’s just not on the top priority of people today, ¨Given the current events that are going on today I understand why it’s not on the top of the newspapers, but I would like to see some talk about it.” 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada Montreal

While entertaining, most do agree that the acknowledgment of the heist isn’t such a necessity as it isn’t something they believe impacts society, “I think I would never think about this. I don’t think it needs more recognition because it’s not like we can do anything about it,¨ says an anonymous student. 

So with this heist, did it really leave an impact on society? The security systems, the people, anything. As Sarah shares, “…I mean somebody stole something. Somebody stole the art. I think that maybe it shouldn’t be their top priority to keep looking, [but] it should be there. To keep looking for it, that’s somebody’s hard work. I don’t think that it should just be forgotten about. And if people are able to steal that much art, who knows what other things they’re going to steal.” Furthermore, as said by CBC, where although they aren’t sure what truly happened to the paintings, it, ¨…entertains some theories about what happened.¨  With this heist, people were sure at some point that the Mafia had been involved, or even the black market, 

Ms. Smith also states that when it comes to impact, it may have to rely on certain factors, like people’s interests and if they are connected with art at all. ¨It would depend on how many people knew about it and I’m guessing there are some people who would be like ‘What? Who’s Rembrandt?’ but he’s a very famous artist and so people who love art would probably be sad about it.” Other than the emotional impact it likely gave on the people watching and caring for the art at the museum or people that study it, most people seem to agree that although it is something to look into, the impact isn’t as severe that we must continue to look too much into it. 

The Gardner Heist

¨Gentlemen this is a robbery¨ 

The line that inspired a Netflix documentary, “This is a robbery,” and, more importantly, is well associated with the world’s biggest art heist, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Theft. With this heist, it is still unsolved, most suspects are already dead, there isn’t even an ‘official’ suspect, and all stolen pieces are still missing. Many officials and news reporters have already looked into the heist for countless years (considering it happened around thirty years ago), and have found very few leads which have only led them to dead ends. Some officials, such as “Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly of the F.B.I., who has been in charge of the Gardner investigation for about six years, said the works have most likely changed hands several times over the years. He also said it was possible that people possessing them might be unaware of their significance or that they were stolen,” as the New York Times writes.

From people sending messages saying that they know where they are, to unauthorized entrances, disguises, and a possibility of an inside job, what happened on that night? And, is it something to still take note of, thirty years later? 

The heist took place on March 18th, 1990 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two men disguised themselves as Police Officers and asked to be let in as they were investigating a disturbance in the area. One of the rules of the museum was to never allow anyone after closing hours, even their own managers. Yet one of the guards opened the door, and it all went downhill from there. The two guards on watch were tied and blindfolded by the security desk with duct tape while the thieves went around and began prying off the paintings. The thieves took a total of eighty-one minutes inside the museum. That could only mean one thing. They knew help wasn’t coming. In the end, the thieves stole eleven paintings, a Chinese Gu, and a Napoleon bronze eagle. Many officials questioned the last two items stolen, considering that it was simply so randomly taken, while the paintings taken were much more precious. A Rembrandt, a Vermeer, and multiple others, gone, in one night. 

Many people have in fact taken a look at the case, and the FBI eventually got involved. Rumors that it had been an inside job spread quickly as the guard who had let the police in broke protocol rules and had been responsible for more than just opening a door. A day prior, he had thrown a party within the museum, leading to many people entering unauthorized areas. Though he couldn’t recall the events particularly, he did recall some unidentified people entering the museum at the time. The thieves knew what they were doing. They knew where all the alarms were, where the paintings were located, and where the security emergency button was. 

 With the paintings taken away, and with all the doubt and despair put into the people who attempted to try and find them, what kind of impact has this theft left for the people of the museum, and mostly, the people in society?

Although the paintings are missing, there have been multiple copies made around the areas, for example, “The Concert¨ painted by Vermeer, multiple copies have been made about it and hung up. As Amelia Balserio adds, “But that’s how we really appreciate art now, by copying it. I feel like that’s kind of weird because you always want to recognize the original one.¨ When it comes to the art, or just art, in general, being stolen, the way that it usually is spread around is by mimicking the original, but it, of course, doesn’t let go of the harsh truth that the original may never be found. 

The officials at the Gardner feel the loss to be extremely important and that it truly has a more emotional impact. In a podcast created by WBUR  with an association with The Boston Globe called Last Seen, Ann Holly, a source, explains that to those who cannot imagine the loss to picture it in a more performance way. She says, ¨…what if Beethoven’s fifth symphony could never be heard again, or what if Louis Armstrong’s work could never be heard again. What if Hamlet could never be played again I mean these are works of the civilization that are so important to remove them is to remove a piece of our civilization.¨ 

Others share her sentiment: What if a song of a popular singer was removed entirely? Besides the argument of there being copies and spare audio recordings, what if these pieces were really gone

Roan shares, ¨I feel with songs, the singer would remember some of it and not hope would be lost. Like, spare backup audio and whatnot. But I feel like art pieces, there is only one of them, other than photographs, and I feel like that’s what would make it more tragic to lose them rather than to lose music. ¨ To feel the loss of something there are only so few of, many agree that it is truly something tragic. Sarah agrees as she says,  “Because pieces of art and things like that, in general, mean a lot to people, so it hurts when that is taken away.” Though of course, with modern technology now, people like that may be grateful that although the physical piece isn’t available, its memory is there in a different form.

The frames of where the paintings used to sit are still being hung up today File:The_stolen_Rembrandt_frames.jpg

So now what? The Gardner still hasn’t been able to find those pieces, so have they been replaced? According to Britannica, “In accordance with Gardner’s wishes, the collection remained unchanged, with empty frames and blank spaces indicating where the stolen paintings once hung.” 

Furthermore, the  New York Times adds that the security in the museum has in fact been changed ever since the heist, and went to extremes by helping in creating a law for art. As it is written, “Museum security has changed too. The Gardner has significantly upgraded its protections, and because of the theft, the American Association of Museums revamped its guidelines, recommending that institutions be more careful about whom they let in after hours. In 1994, at the museum’s urging, Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped pass a law that made it a federal crime to steal, receive or dispose of any cultural object worth more than $100,000.” 

After this whole event, with the frames still up and news going around, some less effective results of impact from the heist have happened over the years. Many forms of entertainment came up, inspired by the whole theft. An example of this would be the Netflix documentary, ¨This is a Robbery ¨ which goes into depth on what happened before, after, and during the theft. Furthermore many books have been created, fiction or non-fiction inspired by the heist. An example of this is a best-seller, The Midnight Ride, by Ben Mezrich which is a thriller featuring the heist and fictional representations of what it could have meant or led to, with the use of three main characters, Nick Patterson, Adrien Jenson, and Hailey Gordon. 

The end result

So what kind of effect does this all leave? Must we acknowledge these heists more and are they a necessity for society, or at the very least has it impacted us? 

“I think in the art world people know about this stuff, ¨ shares Ms. Smith. “I think all curators know about it and art historians and people that run museums all over the world know about this stuff.” But she isn’t sure if they should continue bringing it up. Art heists aren’t well acknowledged, and there isn’t any necessary need for evidence to prove it. No recent update, especially with the unsolved heists, or any ´top´ stories on the news.  

But is that what these heists need? More recognition? As Roan says, “I feel like they’re not recognized enough. Because normally if you asked someone, they would probably be like ´Why would I care, it doesn’t affect me.’¨ She shares how people should instead remain on a more neutral perspective as to care about it but if it doesn’t impact you personally at least be aware of it. Meanwhile, some think that it isn’t necessary to acknowledge it as there isn’t anything they could do about it now, and it doesn’t necessarily impact anyone physically. 

Darissel Martinez,  a student at the iSchool, refers to the Gardner heist saying, ¨I’ll think about it once in while…but it’s not like this rich lady [Isabella Stewert Gardner]is going to be affected by it, it’s not really like it was public art. Like in subways, it’s not like it was really public, so who does it hurt? Sure, ‘Oh you can’t see it’, but there are hundreds of more paintings, and their public, and honestly if she was like ‘Oh the public can no longer view this amazing artwork’ you should have made it public. Instead of keeping it in a museum where people need to pay to enter.” 

While many agree that it doesn’t necessarily affect anyone’s daily life, an anonymous student shares that at the very least people who work with art should know about it, “So it could bring more awareness, and so security could do their jobs better. I think it should be more acknowledged by the museum people and security but I don’t think the general public should acknowledge it more.¨ 

Today, the Mona Lisa is protected far more than before. The people employed at the Gardner insist that the frames of the paintings still be put as to honor them. The theft at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a possible lead of misdirection and one of the more outlandish, ‘luckiest’ attempts at stealing art which most are still missing. 

Though the Mona Lisa has returned there is nothing more the people can do for the rest except wait. Wait for a single painting from the Dutch room or any of the rooms of the Gardner to be returned, for one more of the fading items of the Montreal Museum to be stored away back inside the museum. For a chance to look back on these honorary pieces of history to at the very least, impact or not, show respect. 

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