News / USA

Stealing Rembrandt Doesn't Always Pay

Book chronicles notorious art heists

Rembrandt's 'St. Bartholomew,' stolen from the Worcester Art Museum in 1972, was recovered in the barn of a pig farm.
Rembrandt's 'St. Bartholomew,' stolen from the Worcester Art Museum in 1972, was recovered in the barn of a pig farm.
Faiza Elmasry

A drawing by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, valued at $250,000, was stolen from a hotel in Southern California this month. It was quickly recovered.

But the whereabouts of three Rembrandts stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum more than 20 years ago, in the largest art heist in American history, remains a mystery.

Now, a security expert and an investigative reporter have teamed up to chronicle the history of Rembrandt heists in a new book, called "Stealing Rembrandts, The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists," and are optimistic the long-time mystery will be solved.

High-end heists

St. Patricks Day in 1990 was festive at first but, late at night, two men dressed as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Using handcuffs and duct tape to subdue the guards, they made off with 13 artworks, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer and a Manet. The booty was worth several hundred million dollars.

This 1630 self-portrait of Rembrandt, stolen in Stockholm in 2000, was later recovered in Copenhagen.
This 1630 self-portrait of Rembrandt, stolen in Stockholm in 2000, was later recovered in Copenhagen.

About 15 years later, with the works still missing, Anthony Amore, a former Homeland Security official, was tapped to head security at the museum. To solve the crime, he set out to learn about Rembrandt thefts over the last 100 years.

“The first step was to research old police records, talk to federal agencies, look at old archived newspaper articles," says Amore. "Then, reach international organizations, Interpol and the rest. And then, through those, especially for older thefts that happened decades ago, I found that art thieves were willing to speak about what they had done.”

Amore joined forces with Tom Mashberg, an investigative reporter. Together, they made interesting discoveries about art thieves in general.

“These guys were involved in all kinds of theft," says Amore. "They were also familiar with robbing things like banks or pharmacies, armored car robberies, home invasions."

“And we were really shocked to discover that there had been 81 robberies involving Rembrandts in the last 100 years,” Mashberg adds.

Most stolen artists of all time

Rembrandt is one of the most stolen artists of all time, second only to Picasso. Mashberg says the fame of the Dutch master makes his work a target.

“He left behind at least 1,000 works in the U.S., Europe, Canada and other parts of the world. His name is so familiar even to the most common criminal.”

Rembrandt's 'Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn' has been stolen four times from the Dulwich Gallery in London.
Rembrandt's 'Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn' has been stolen four times from the Dulwich Gallery in London.

The accessibility of museum art, Mashberg says, is another factor.  

“When you go into a museum, you don’t want to see armed guards everywhere. You don’t want art to be behind Plexiglas and you don’t want to hear alarms go off every time you get within a couple of feet to a famous painting."

Art thefts are frequent, and some end badly.   

“One of the paintings by Rembrandt, a portrait of his wife, was actually burned by the criminals and destroyed forever because they were afraid they would be caught and put in prison,” Mashberg says.

Why stealing art doesn't pay

However, in 80 percent of the cases, the work turns up unharmed.

And it's not uncommon for art thieves to make stupid decisions. In the 1972 robbery at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, a gang of thieves stole Rembrandt’s "St. Bartholomew," as well as works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin.

“It was amazing for me to learn that, not only did the thieves start boasting about it right away which led to arrests," Amore says, "but that the mastermind of the crime ultimately hid the Rembrandt painting in a barn, on a pig farm about 40 minutes from his home. So, it really struck me to think that this beautiful painting was in such a profane place."

Unlike diamonds or gold, valuable paintings have little street value. They are instantly recognizable and cannot be reintroduced into the marketplace without attracting attention, which makes it difficult for criminals to sell them.

“We have several cases in the book where the thieves just gave up and left the paintings off in a public place, like a train station or a park, and then called the police and said ‘Why don’t you just go pick it up,'" Mashberg says. "'It’s too much trouble.’"

But that hasn't worked for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  According to reports, the FBI recently re-tested DNA from the crime scene to develop new leads.

Mashberg and Amore remain optimistic that the Rembrandts stolen more than 20 years ago will be recovered. Although they won't divulge details about the case, they say, history shows stealing art doesn’t pay.

You May Like

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs